I’m watching a documentary about schools where children are made to stay overnight – months of overnights. It’s giving me a stomach ache. Quite a bad one.
On screen the journalist and writer, Alex Renton, has his head in his hands. Like me, Alex is a survivor of these hideous establishments. He falters when he reaches the next bit of his story. The end of childhood bit. The bit where the ‘violent’ maths teacher thrusts his hand down an eight-year-old’s corduroy shorts.
Sexual violation is the…blooding that initiates children into the closed ranks of the ruling class.
However, I’m wondering whether sexual violation is the undisclosed secret ingredient, the quiet blooding that initiates children into the closed ranks of the ruling class.
This is not an argument against elitist education. It’s an observation of how it impacts on us all. This relic of a pedagogical system, through which I passed, was designed to produce colonial despots and those who can lead a country into war – that prime minister hell bent on invading Iraq comes to mind.
Of course not everyone does, but we’re not interested here in the broken. What we’re interested in are the survivors. The ones who walk amongst us, particularly those who succeed. The individuals who illustrate that here the greatest victims are empathy, candour and shame.
Deceit though is the very least of it. Lying by omission is the first lesson. Aged fourteen, three years into my sentence, the music teacher suggested over a cup of tea that the reason the doctor was giving us so many anal examinations was not because we needed them. It was an observation that she could rely on would never be communicated to my parents, and never to be brought up with the school.
This lack of respect for the truth, or for a child’s safety, makes the adults we have become remorseless. The most classic example is our foreign secretary, educated at the same charitable organisation as Renton, who is now on screen, rubbing at his scalp to distract himself from tears. We have to ask ourselves what kind of child that boy was, and therefore what kind of man he has become.
Imagine our cabinet, lined up outside the master’s study, in short trousers. Which one would you vote as most likely to be buggered – perhaps that blonde, smiley one who never shuts up, his incessant banter a survival tactic to distract predatory masters, and to prevent annihilation by his pre-teen peers.
For children who board there is, as Renton remarks, a ‘permanent threat of violence’. Which for many little people has the effect that we struggle to grow up. Yes, our Diplomatic Representative on the international stage may be idle, fatuous, reckless and frankly useless, but perhaps we should forgive him. Because what Renton’s talking about is not the end of childhood. It’s what arrests it. The Neverlanded child in a ceaseless hunt for attention, for approval, for love. Stuck.
But this is not a plea for your indulgence. We deserve none of your pity or concern. Resilience doesn’t even begin to cover it. We’re as durable as titanium with bounce. We have scraped bottoms we did not know existed, and we are prepared to take that scraping, and that bottom as far as it needs to go.
Rather than an appeal for sympathy this is very much a warning. We should not, under any account, trust anyone with an elitist education to run the Foreign Office, a constituency, or even the public toilets at Kings Cross. We have been driven so far past caring we are turning off at the signpost for ‘contempt’.
“The productiveness of pain,” writes William Davies, the political economist, “is a central conservative belief.” Coincidentally, it is also a central belief for the average public school.
Davies notes too, when referring to cabinet members, that “ignorance and lack of effort are taken almost as a mark of distinction.”
A recklessness that Renton, his mouth set in a hard horizontal line, is now attempting to illustrate on screen. He wonders whether what happened then can continue to happen now.
“Do you think,’ he asks a campaigner for mandatory reporting, “things are genuinely different today in boarding schools?”
“No,” is the response. “I don’t see how they can be. When I was abused and you were abused there was no requirement to report it, and today there continues to be no requirement. If you can spot a difference in there, let me know.”
It is this disdain for the detail that plagues the current cabinet. We are complacent, never having to worry over whether there will be breakfast or if there is enough money for shoes. Whatever it is that is impoverishing us, it is too unspeakable to voice.
Unlike hunger, which kills, we know from sharp experience that we do survive. Everything in the end will work out. Childhood has an end point and if we can just keep ourselves alive long enough all can be muddled through. The very worst can be born. Which leads to a narcissistic bravado that is breath taking and not a little perverse.
“They would not let us talk to their children”
Political commentators, presumably also amongst the elite, like to call it authenticity. However, perhaps more than authenticity what defines the populist politician is the way in which they were schooled. This dysfunctional parade of adults, from the US president to that Tory back bench heckler who has never changed a nappy, are conviction politicians who have no idea what conviction means. Whatever plain speaking trustworthiness has been attributed to them, it is a total sham.
On screen the female police officer is telling Renton that parents have not allowed her to interview the children assaulted by a serial abuser that she would like to arrest. Renton looks a little confused. I swallow.
“I’m sad to say,” she says, “that the majority I spoke to…some were hesitant, and some very clear…that they would not let us talk to their children.” Nothing, she smiles uncomfortably, should endanger the reputation of the school.
“Their academic careers,” Renton asks incredulously, “were more important than their safety?”
Perhaps having a Master rifle through your child’s pyjamas is a compromise that many parents, especially those of us who have survived, are happy to make. Success to us survivors is worth its price. Let’s even call it a privilege.
Alex Renton https://alexrenton.com/stiff-upper-lip/ William Davies https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n05/william-davies/what-are-they-after