There was an article in the Guardian this weekend about the dark underside to books about boarding schools; how for every jolly Hogwarts story, there are many that display a somewhat seamier underbelly than even the one imagined by JK Rowling (and given that she imagined a basilisk slithering around the school in the Chamber of Secrets, that's really saying something).
"Savage discipline, along with sexual confusion and formalised bullying, are so common in the schooldays memoirs of the British elite in the 19th and 20th centuries that you have to conclude that parents wanted and paid for their children to experience these things. To most of the class that used them, the private schools were factories that would reliably produce men and women who would run Britain, its politics, business and culture. Boarding school was a proven good investment. So thousands of men and women who had suffered awfully, by their own admission, sent their children off for just the same."
Well, steady on.
My dad was the first member of his family to go to University, studying medicine in London with a set of grades at A-Level that wouldn't get him anywhere near further education these days. He worked hard and, together with my mum, thought that the best gift that they could give their children was to send them to boarding school. So, at the age of 7 years old, I effectively left home.
The schools I went to for the next 11 years were some way removed from the kind of places that people now pay upwards of £35,000 a year. Nowadays, it's all co-education (girls!), study-bedrooms and academic achievement. Not in my day. These schools were at the sharp-end of a few decades of under-investment, and the cracks were beginning to show. I was a scholar, my parents receiving a discount on my bill because of my academic performance... something which also earned me the tremendous distinction of having my name in capital letters in the school directory. Sadly, academic achievement counted for little and pretty much doomed you to a life with a diminished social status in a school where your prowess at sport was everything. I had to work very hard indeed to get my social status back to a comfortable zero, which is about as good as it ever got for me. Actually, that's about as good as it's EVER been.
Was I bullied? A bit, although physical bullying was very rare and the the kind of fagging that you might have read about in Tom Brown's Schooldays was long dead. Was there even a hint of sexual abuse from either teacher or other pupils? None that I heard and certainly none that I experienced.
Did I suffer long-lasting emotional damage that has affected my ability to form close relationships or to express my feelings? Absolutely. Although the bullying aspect of the article didn't chime with me at all, there was one bit that really did:
EM Forster delivered the harshest of all one-liners about the products of the British public school. They go out into the world, he wrote in 1927, “with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts”.
Undeveloped hearts. There it is. That's the (a-ha!) heart of the matter.
I get on well with my family, but we aren't close by any stretch of the imagination. My wife mentioned to me at the weekend that she really needed to talk to her mum because they hadn't spoken since Wednesday. I haven't spoken to mine since Mother's Day and I haven't spoken to either of my brothers for a few months. No one is ignoring anyone: this is just perfectly normal in my family. I don't blame anyone, but I'm fairly sure that this is the result of my schooling. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for my mother in particular to send me away when I was seven years old, but she did it with the best of intentions. My mother would probably take this as the most damning criticism of all, but I'd certainly never send any child of mine into this environment.
“They say that Eton taught us nothing,” crowed the first world war general Sir Herbert Plumer at a dinner of the school’s old boys’ society in 1916. “But I must say they taught it very well.”
The funny thing is that I never at any point even really felt homesick.
Isn't that sad?
The Treasure Chest
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