Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England review - angry and lacking in empathy

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The novelist Richard Beard doesn’t know Boris Johnson, but he believes he understands him. He understands David Cameron too. Or rather he understands the type of men they are. During the Covid crisis Beard was ‘ashamed, sad, afraid and angry’ but not surprised by the mess Britain was in because he recognised the behaviour of the people in charge. They were people like him – his generation of former private school boys. School had damaged them and now they were damaging the country.

Beard lives only half a mile from his old secondary school, Radley College, which is one of the country’s four last boys-only, boarding-only public schools. In lockdown he returned every day to walk around the school’s deserted grounds and reflect upon how the facts of the past shape the present. Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England is the result.

Beard had only just turned eight when his parents sent him to board at Pinewood, a prep school on the edge of the Cotswolds, in January 1975, the same year that Johnson went to Ashdown House in East Sussex and a term after Cameron started at Heatherdown in Berkshire. Beard went to Radley when he was 13 while Johnson and Cameron were sent to Eton.

Beard quotes some of his letters home from Pinewood. He recalls that behind the surface banalities about weather, cricket, penknives and sweeties, there was a scared, lonely little boy. He had quickly learned that the most important lesson for survival was being able to hide these feelings, even from himself.

This ‘emotional austerity’ started from the moment the parents drove away. A mother’s love was ‘a trick’ which lasted only until the beginning of each term. At the cusp of adolescence, this sadness had turned to anger. There was ‘the seething unspoken promise that someday, somehow, someone would have to pay’.

As miserable as Beard was, at least his education was excellent, yes? No. Beard says he didn’t get an education ‘so much as a re-education, in the Maoist sense’. Boarding school was a cult-like, imperialist indoctrination training camp for those destined for leadership or wealth. A spirit of totalitarianism possessed nearly every element of his boarding school life. Nothing escaped untainted. Beard dismisses the teaching of Classics, for example, as an elitist way to maintain ‘our connection to the ruling caste’.

The words ‘we’ and ‘our’ dominate Sad Little Men. Beard wants to generalise his experience. He is careful to keep his argument focused on his generation of private school boys, so it wouldn’t be fair for me – an Old Etonian who left in 2008 – to compare my own time at school to his. But I did find it odd that in a book about the experiences of others (it is not, after all, called Sad Little Man) the only fellow former boarding school pupil Beard interviews at any length is the son of an Indian doctor whom he asks about racial abuse.

Beard makes many big assumptions about politicians (mostly Johnson and Cameron), their thought processes and their private lives. Some are a real stretch. He claims Johnson doesn’t have friends and cites as evidence the fact that the Prime Minister’s younger brother was best man at his wedding to his first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen. It shouldn’t have to be said that many grooms with plenty of friends still ask their brothers to be their best man.

At times Beard’s psychological assessments aren’t just shaky, they’re nasty. In one aside he implies that the suicide of the 19-year-old son of a former Tory MP had something to do with the young man’s time at Eton (‘These schools didn’t work for everybody’).

Hannah Arendt and George Orwell are strong influences for Beard, which might explain why Nazis feature as much as they do in a book about English private schools.

Hitler’s unimpressive attempts at painting are compared to Johnson’s flop novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, and the caste hierarchy assumed by an English private school in the late 1970s and early 1980s is said to differ ‘only slightly’ from the hierarchy assumed by the Nazis.

Beard’s point is that these dictators were ‘nothing special’ in the context of an English boys’ boarding school. If any of this sounds far-fetched, remember that ‘historically in Europe a tyrant’s first steps often seem implausible’. You have been warned.

Beard is angry. Nothing wrong with that, but for a book that praises empathy, there’s not much here. If Cameron’s and Johnson’s school days were as terrible as Beard’s, you might expect some pity from the author. Instead, his hostility towards them is evident at nearly every mention of their names. His attempts to understand them feel shallow, his conclusions predetermined. If all the young men leaving school in the 1980s were subjected to the same institutional cruelty, then Beard’s denouncements of them (‘a fresh cohort of reptilian pseudo-adults,’ for instance) read like a weird form of victim-blaming.

Beard’s recollections of his childhood feelings of separation and fear, and the repression of those feelings, are moving and thoughtful but they are not enough to recommend Sad Little Men. In the very British genre of ‘former public-school boys railing against public schools’ Alex Renton’s 2017 book Stiff Upper Lip – a similar mix of personal experience, polemic and history – is better in almost every respect.

Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England by Richard Beard (Vintage, £16.99)

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