Stiff upper lip – and no moustache

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Every so often people write about the psychological damage caused by the British uppercrust boarding school system as it was experienced until fairly recently.  The writers are men, describing the experience of boys, often sent away at 7 or 8 to prep school before going on to one of the big name schools.  Years of physical and sexual abuse was the lot of many.  The most recent book of this genre to be in the news (Channel Four, 11.4.17) is Alex Renton’s “Stiff Upper Lip.”  It took him forty years before he was able to talk about his school life, at Ashdown prep school followed by Eton.  Jon Snow interviewed him, sitting on a bench in the grounds of Ashdown house – now transformed and reformed, I must add.  The writer pointed out the window of the headmaster’s study.  Watching, one could only shudder for the child that had been abused within those walls.

In the studio was a psychologist.  She talked of boarding school syndrome.  A child removed from its home and immediately taught not to cry or object to any treatment is likely to become an adult who internally harbours a bereaved child, whose needs have never been heard.    The child part may not be recognised in the adult, by the adult or those in relationship with them.   But it will make itself known in behaviour.

When I was training to be a psychotherapist, I was led to consider childhood experiences, and the effects of boarding school on others but most particularly on myself.  Oh, I loved school, I used to say.  Then I remembered, with numerical exactitude, my first three weeks of nights spent soaking my koala bear with tears, hoping no-one in the dormitory could hear me.   At least we were allowed to have one soft toy, before we were shamed into leaving it behind.  Were there others gulping down tears?   Maybe not.   I joined the school in January when I was ten and a half, the only new girl in my house and form.  The rest had joined in September, at the beginning of the school year.  They’d long since learnt not to cry.  No-one came in the night to comfort me.  That would have been breaking a taboo as long established as the school, founded in 1864 and modelled on Arnold’s Rugby.    After 21 nights, I remember clearly coming to the conclusion that I must give up tears.

Alex Renton’s television interview prompted me to think again about boarding school syndrome, and the differences in experience for boys and girls.  Boys suffered physical abuse: beatings and sexual abuse.  What about us girls?  We are never part of this conversation.  Does that mean we weren’t abused?  I haven’t yet gone into this in any depth.  But I’m prompted to think about it today.

At my boarding school, we weren’t beaten and – to the best of my knowledge – no mistress ever sexually abused a pupil.  There was no sex education.  My mother must have thought the school would deal with this so I had no idea how babies were made.  I remember thinking that tummy buttons might be involved.  The novels in the meagre fiction library had been thoroughly censored, although there was something rather thrilling in ‘How Green Was My Valley’.  A girl admired her body in a mirror.  That was the sort of mild and innocent scene that excited a female boarding school inmate growing up without mirrors, without guidance.   On leaving school at 18, I was at sea, as keen to learn what sex was all about as I was frightened to learn.

This is a strange way to be brought up, but can it be labelled as abuse? I think so.  It was emotional abuse, a gender-compatible form.  We were brought up not to be ourselves, not to be fully feminine; in fact, to be sort-of-men, to have stiff upper lips but not – horrors! – moustaches.   At hunt balls and Scottish reels in village halls we met boys a little older than ourselves who’d been at the right sort of public schools.  We were as inept as each other at relating to the opposite sex.  Somehow most of us muddled through, despite that early damage.   But it’s well to be aware, as the psychologist in yesterday’s interview pointed out, that many of our ruling elite are, at heart, bereaved children, who – as children – silently suffered regular beating and/or sexual abuse.   How may that influence their policy-making?  The irony is that the system is continually reinforced by fathers sending their sons to their old public schools.   “Never did me any harm!”   Mothers have usually resisted, for a variety of reasons.

My schooling, for which my father paid more than he could afford on a retired army officer’s pension, left me determined not to send my children away to school.  We came home from our Greek island life so that our two could go to the local comprehensive, and we chose Devon as the best location for that local.  Peter and I get heated in any discussion about private education.  We think it is the single most divisive element in our society.    Worst of all, private education has become a far more widely desired goal than it ever was in the past.  In the days of empire, boarding schools were a practical necessity for people serving overseas.  They are still necessary for people whose work is abroad.  But goodness me, if you’re Chinese, African, or of any other nation, please don’t perpetuate an abusive system by propping it up with your offspring.  Even if boarding schools are not nearly as harshly run as they were, the private education system is not good for a child.   It turns out individuals with a false and dangerous sense of superiority; those that have boarded have the added handicap of being emotionally stunted.  How could they not be.

A growing number of people, who have ‘done better’ than their parents, want to give their children the education they didn’t have themselves.  They send their children to private day schools.   But in country areas it’s a case of taking, not sending.  They drive miles and miles, not just for the normal school day but for after-school activities.  The children have no local friends.   The parents consider they’re giving their children the chance of a good education.  But it’s not a matter of a better or worse education; it’s our society’s value system that’s askew.

In my utopia, everyone, girls and boys, go to the local school, to the great benefit of that local school’s standards.  If parents have to live abroad in a country where local schools are non-existent, then their children are fostered back home during termtime with a family in the local school’s catchment area.  It is inhuman to send a child to an alien environment without pressing cause.  In my utopian comprehensive system, streaming allows people of similar abilities to learn together, and practical skills are as valued as academic ones.  As my great-aunt Lydia Becker said, “Every boy in Manchester should be taught how to darn his own socks and cook his own chops.”  Lydia, a forerunner of the Pankhursts, founded “The Women’s Suffrage Journal” in 1870.   See page 111 in ALIVE IN WORLD WAR TWO, The Cousins’ Chronicle 1939 – 1945 and 2016.

Roll on, Utopia.  Meanwhile, I’ll order Alex Renton’s “Stiff Upper Lip” –

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