The Old Etonian John Julius Norwich, asked for a memory that he thought summed up the spirit of his school, offered the following: after a boy had killed himself “the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’” This strikes me as appallingly funny; or funny and appalling. It captures – in its black bad taste and high-stakes insouciance – some of what public schools teach their students. Nothing is so serious it can’t be a joke – and the joke, as Alex Renton notes, both fences with authority and obscurely reinforces it.
In 2014, Renton wrote in the Observer about his experiences in the boarding prep school Ashdown House, describing how he was sexually molested by a teacher; and how, when his contemporaries complained about abuse, they were themselves savagely punished for sneaking. In response to his article, he heard from hundreds with similar stories.
Here is a wide-ranging inquiry into the phenomenon of boarding schools in the UK. Renton paints a picture of class-based groupthink, made-up traditions, contagious snobbery and – in Larkin’s phrase – man handing on misery to man, and it deepening like a coastal shelf. It is striped with pungent quotations from those who have been through the system and been hurt by it. What’s most odd is that parents who had themselves been deeply unhappy at school went on, generation after generation, to send their children to the same places. Renton suggests that “normalisation” – rationalising the pain by deciding that it was good for you after all, or that your parents knew best – may be the psychological mechanism at work. (more...)