As someone generally preoccupied with stories, I’m particularly interested when a single story is open to diametrically opposing interpretations. Once one starts to think about it, it’s surprising how many of these we carry around with us.
Looking for an external example, I was briefly tempted to pick something from the coverage of the Scottish independence referendum to illustrate this, but I’m not going to. Instead, this is the one that has recently caught my attention. “Boarding schools apologise for ‘shame’ of historic abuse,” says the BBC. “Send children to boarding schools to develop ‘true grit’,” says The Telegraph.
Both are reporting on the same speech, earlier this month, by Ray McGovern, head of the Boarding Schools Association. Each slants the story the way one might expect it to and in a sense neither is wrong. McGovern’s narrative goes: boarding schools were rotten places once but they’re just the ticket now.
I understand both slants and both make me feel equally uncomfortable because I carry with me my own version of this two-faced story. In 1957, a few weeks short of my eighth birthday, I was sent to board at a preparatory school in Scotland. At 13, I moved on to a public school in Berkshire where I continued to board till I was 18.
I was exceptionally well educated at the first, less well at the second. I was beaten at the first, deservedly (given that that was the standard form of punishment), but not abused at either. I was subjected to humiliation and some physical violence as part of the routine initiation of new boys at the second, though not singled out and never bullied. And to my eternal shame, I myself rather half-heartedly beat a younger boy in my final term because, as head of my house, it was what was expected of me by the school authorities.
Mine was, I think, a fairly typical and unexceptional experience of boarding school life in the 1960s. When I left I was exactly what the system intended me to be: outwardly confident, probably rather arrogant, highly self-reliant, socially adroit and with a tendency to take charge of things. Had this been a century earlier, I would have been good servant of Empire material, which is what England’s boarding schools were originally designed to produce.
Once in the world of work I didn’t give any of it much thought until the issue of my own children’s schooling cropped up, 20 years later. Then, rather to my surprise, especially since boarding wasn’t a serious option, I found that I was vehemently opposed to the very idea of it. But I didn’t really understand why.
Another 10 years went by and suddenly, in my late 40s, I was hit by an inexplicable wave of misery. It made no sense. I was in the early years of a happy second marriage, with two young children and living in a beautiful place; and despite a certain conflict between my creative and commercial activities, there was little to complain about in my working life. Yet the misery was consuming.
I sought help and gradually came to understand that what was happening was that I was now paying the price of the ‘true grit’ advocated by The Telegraph. Time and again I revisited the railway carriage that had left Waverley station that September afternoon in 1957, the weeping twins who sat opposite me, the feeling of desolation at lights-out on the first night in the dormitory, the consolation found in the letter my mother had secretly placed in the breast pocket of my pyjamas.
Put very simply, the only way to survive separation at that young age is to lock away the pain. The locking away becomes a habit, other feelings end up in the dungeon, and emotional disconnection ensues. But sooner or later – very often later – the feelings start clamouring to be let out again and that’s when the real trouble begins.
In many ways I was lucky. I escaped relatively unscathed, unlike the journalist Alex Renton who wrote a brave account of his own experiences in The Observer earlier this month (see here). My school career, in one version of the story, was an all-round success and I went on to university well prepared for the next stage of life’s journey.
And the other version? I continue to ask myself this: what kind of society encourages parents to believe that a child who is separated from them and entrusted to strangers, however well-intentioned, at the age of seven will somehow be the better for it? It surely makes a mockery of parenthood. And if the pursuit of ‘true grit’ at that tender age leads to the kind of wretchedness and bewilderment that later visited me, I have to conclude that it must itself be a form of abuse.
I’m away for a break now and won’t be posting next week. Back in a fortnight. The BBC World Service interview about Keeping Mum was finally broadcast early yesterday morning. You can listen to it here (26 minutes in).