Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class by Alex Renton - review

William Moore
Take it like a man: Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film If: Rex Features

It's hard to feel sorry for Old Etonians, isn’t it? Lord Robert Cecil, the third Marquess of Salisbury, detested his time at the school, calling it “an existence among devils”, and had to leave because of intense bullying. Still, goes the popular argument, he served three terms as Prime Minister, so how bad could it have been?

It’s not just bad, it’s traumatic, argues journalist Alex Renton. He was a boarder in the Seventies from the age of eight to 18, first at Ashdown House, a prep school in East Sussex, and then at Eton. He recalls lying in his dormitory with a pillow over his face to stifle tears of homesickness, since any noise after lights out would trigger a beating from the older boys, sometimes with belt buckles. He was also the victim of sexual abuse from four different teachers, three at his prep school and one at Eton.

Since 2013 Renton has collected data about boarding school abuse. From 800 or so first-hand accounts he found 250 allegations that constituted criminal sexual assault with the highest number of cases from the Seventies. He estimates that “at least a quarter of the schools of the privileged had harboured adult sexual abusers”, and perhaps many more. The simple truth, he says, is that “run-of-the-mill non-violent paedophilia” did not get noticed.

As well as criminal sexual activity, Renton examines the ritualised brutality of punishment beatings from masters. He provides a scattered history of British boarding schools (with particular focus on their popularity in the Victorian era) and references many experiences from all sorts of public and historic figures who suffered the rod, from Winston Churchill to John le Carré. Their pain was deemed necessary in order for them to become civilised gentlemen: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.”

One account of a Seventies headmaster of an unnamed school in the Midlands is especially frightful. He beat children “with immense energy and obvious delight, for offences both absurd (‘using too much toothpaste’) to tragic (‘crying in chapel’)”. Boys anticipating his punishment would vomit from fear.

All-girls’ schools could be just as torturous, though more focused on public humiliation rather than flogging. Renton’s correspondents tell of how they were forced by an angry teacher to drink salt water or, when their first period came, to carry a bloodied sheet through the corridors.

In the book’s longest and most compelling chapter, Renton recounts in focused detail his meeting with “Maurice”, a rehabilitated child molester who was “honoured” to be interviewed. When he was a boarding school pupil Maurice was sexually involved with other boys and some of the masters. Aside from one “traumatic” rape by older boys when he was 11, he speaks positively of his “traditional” underage experiences. As an adult he became a schoolmaster in Woking and moved to the “other side of the coin”. Since he had enjoyed his own underage encounters he “assumed that other boys would enjoy it in the same way”.

Renton paints a mesmerising portrait of this contradictory man, with his forever shifting boundaries and moral outlook — forced sex and anal sex were wrong, he explains, but masturbation, oral sex and bribery for favours were acceptable. Maurice lost his job in Woking and was prosecuted for sexual assault in 1988 and 1994 and then a third time in 2003 for the possession of child pornography. Even though he now acknowledges that children cannot give consent he still can’t deny his own tragic, perverse feelings: “I literally loved them and they loved me.”

“This is not a book about me,” Renton insists, but there’s no escaping the gruelling and gripping sense of personal catharsis on every page.

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