In the spring of 2020 the writer Richard Beard decided to haunt his old school. A divorced 53-year-old father-of-three, he found himself living in a flat just half a mile from Radley College, the grand boys’ boarding school where he spent five “formative years” from the age of 13 to 18. For some reason, not entirely clear to him at first, he felt impelled to patrol the school’s magnificent grounds and playing fields by the banks of the Thames, wondering what rules he was infringing, encountering the odd matron on surveillance duty and the current warden (nearly everyone else was away, locked down). What he was really in search of was his younger self.
Lockdown – a time of harsh restriction and loneliness – gave him a strange feeling he couldn’t initially identify. Then it came to him. “I… felt like I was back at boarding school… which wouldn’t have mattered,” he added, “but for the fact that at a time of national crisis my generation of boarding school boys found themselves in charge.” That generation includes the two most recent Etonian prime ministers, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Sad Little Men is Beard’s attempt both to piece together his own past, what formed him as a certain type of character, a “public school man”, and to analyse the wider British system of private school education, which he blames for many of the country’s ills.
Beard’s 2017 memoir about his younger brother’s accidental drowning, The Day That Went Missing, was widely praised, and here he proceeds in similar fashion, using a variety of sources – including a diary he kept aged 13, school regulations, invoices, reports and letters, memoirs by earlier writers, material from the internet – to make up for a partial amnesia you could attribute to trauma, or just a desire to forget.
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He starts with his prep school, Pinewood, where he was sent to board aged eight. The headmaster, Geoffrey “Goat” Walters, had a “small pre-war moustache” and kept in his study a bamboo cane, which he was happy to apply to boys’ bottoms. Standard stuff, I suppose, though for me (also a boarder from the age of eight) it evoked the pervasive fear of being beaten which loured over my school days.
Beard makes less of the humiliation of corporal punishment than some earlier writers (George Orwell opened his memoir of his prep school days, Such, Such Were the Joys, with an account of how he was repeatedly beaten for wetting his bed). His point is as much about the strangeness and outdatedness of the codes, rituals and practices of boarding schools.
Just as chilling as the beating, for me, was the “term schedule” in which “Goat” laid out the rules for what was in effect a kind of internment: “Parents are welcome to take out their son twice on Sundays during term time… The boys are available from 11am (after chapel) and should return before 6.30pm.” There is surely something weird about “are welcome” as well as “available” – as if the boys (unfortunately girls don’t feature much) had become the school’s property, only available to their parents when the school decreed.
Other old-fashioned and peculiar features of boarding school as described by Beard (and recalled by me) include a strange obsession with the Second World War; appalling food; a toleration of racist and even fascist attitudes; an almost complete insulation from the world outside; the lack of any need for teachers to have any educational qualification; boys having to swim and parade naked in pools and showers in front of adults, some of them paedophiles; letters home that were censored by the school authorities (in my case) or self-censored and so read like hostage testimony. “Dear Mummy and Daddy,” Beard writes in one of his own dispatches, “Thank you for taking me out on Sunday. I am looking forward to coming out again.”
Beard leans on two “elective guardians” for his analysis – the sociologist Erving Goffman and the philosopher and diagnostician of totalitarianism Hannah Arendt. Especially relevant is Goffman’s notion of “total institutions”, which he defined as “the forcing houses for changing persons… natural experiment[s] on what can be done to the self”. This takes the British boarding school away from the jokey world of Molesworth or the fantasy of Hogwarts and closer to grimmer set-ups such as the asylum at Bethesda, Maryland, on which Goffman based his work. The connections with Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism seem more remote, though her comment that “a government will let evil spread if it knows the country is disintegrating in any case” may set alarm bells ringing.
Beard has spent a good deal of time deconstructing the conventional “good chap” who emerged from his schooling. An “early lesson” was “the importance of hiding genuine feeling, even from myself”. With homesickness, for example, “we learned to despise the boys who blubbed for their mummies”. As for sex, single-sex boarding schools put pupils in a bind from which there is no available or legal escape (heterosexual relationships unavailable, homosexual ones punished with beating or expulsion).
Boarding schools seem designed to break the most natural attachment, the affective bond between parent and child. No wonder the father of attachment theory, John Bowlby, said he “wouldn’t send a dog away to boarding school aged seven”.
Some kind of betrayal has taken place: parents who should be protectors have given their child over to the enemy. The child ends up wondering what he or she has done wrong to deserve this. Loyalties become split, the notions of home and school confused, as Beard writes: “We lost contact with the feeling of ‘home’ as we did with so many other feelings.” Beyond that, boarding schools force their inmates to lead double lives, to be divided selves for whom “evasion and secrecy became a way of life…nimble operators between different versions of reality”.
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One of the best chapters is about how the idea of escape from the institution – almost a constant fantasy – always hung out of reach. How could you escape when there was nowhere to escape to, home having ceased to be properly home (if you got there, you’d probably be sent straight back to school), and you were a marked person, wearing absurd 1950s kit, in the normal world?
You may think Beard (and I) are protesting too much. No schooling is perfect, either pedagogically or psychologically. As for blaming the country’s recent disasters on a handful of Etonians and other boarding school types, isn’t that far-fetched? After all, only 7 per cent of children in England are educated privately, and just 1 per cent in boarding schools.
Not taking things too seriously is a trait greatly admired at certain boarding schools. Woe betide anyone at my school (Eton) who was thought to be too “keen”. The idea was to achieve effortlessly. This is a trait shared by Cameron and Johnson. Beard is acute on the psychological aetiology: “Once we found out what another boy took most seriously we were ready to strike, when necessary, at its core. Our most effective defence was… to act as if we took nothing very seriously at all.”
Despite going so far as to try to enlist the support of the Queen during the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign, Cameron never seemed to take its successor referendum on the EU all that seriously; or at least he never seemed to consider seriously the possibility of defeat. Likewise Johnson, whose modus operandi is based on a kind of clowning, was slow to recognise the true seriousness of the Covid pandemic. He was notably absent from the Cobra meetings leading up to the first wave in 2020, and initially thought the whole thing was overblown.
Not taking things too seriously may work in untroubled times, but when disaster strikes, the shallowness and emotional dishonesty that lie behind it are revealed. Johnson’s decision to go on holiday as the Taliban closed in on Kabul on 14 August may not have represented a “dereliction of duty on an extraordinary scale”, in the words of Major General Charlie Herbert, but it spoke of emotional detachment.
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A lack of empathy with the suffering of others is a trait many have observed in Johnson. “Emotional detachment and dissociation”, “cynicism” and “exceptionalism” are all symptoms of what the psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien has called Boarding School Syndrome. Johnson’s apparent adoption of a policy of herd immunity in the Covid crisis, regarded by many epidemiologists as reckless and immoral, points to a different quality of concern for fellow citizens’ lives than that shown by, for instance, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, as does his incurable joking.
That dissociation – not to mention the absence of girls – is hardly conducive to the art of relationships. Many of my Etonian friends have been successful in their professions, but in the field of relationships many have floundered (I include myself) behind a facade of self-deprecating charm. You could read Brexit as an infantile rejection of the obligations of a relationship, with our closest neighbours and even with the component parts of our own United Kingdom, in favour of a solipsistic fantasy of swashbuckling omnipotence.
In Beard’s reading that would be a compensation for an earlier loss, the shameful truth that, to quote Orwell, “at eight years old you were suddenly taken out of [a] warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy” – and the words you wanted to say, but couldn’t, were “I want my mummy”.
Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England
Harvill Secker, 288pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire