I once read a description of the great British Public Schools (a strange term; they are not for the general public but are fee paying schools for the elite) as ‘concentration camps run by paedophiles.’ How my heart would sink when I was reading an English novel and the son reached the age of seven. I knew the mother would be distraught, the father resolute; the child, like his father before him, had to be sent away to boarding school. Whether it was Eton, Rugby or Harrow, the poor innocent had no idea what he was in for.
My first love affair with books about girls at boarding school was of course the works of Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s being an all-time favourite. But there were also the Malory Towers books. When I was thirteen, I begged and begged to be sent to boarding school and eventually I was. That was an eye opener. No charming Mam’zells. or jolly sports mistresses. It was all dour nuns, who clinked through the dormitory at night intoning, ‘We must all die, we know not when nor where nor how, but if we are in a state of mortal sin, we are lost forever.’ Snap; lights out. There was no bullying between students. We were too cowed for that. All I remember is the horrendous boredom.
Later I read Tom Brown’s School Days and wept at the bullying he received there, and Antonia White’s Frost in May, the story of her treatment at the hands of religion crazed nuns.
But recently in one of my decrepit second-hand book shops I came upon a book published in 1991 by Amanda Craig entitled A Private Place which was about a progressive co-ed school called Knotsworth.
I hadn’t read Amanda Craig before, although she has published her eighth book this year. Her writing I would describe, as literary, with lots of classical allusion. She knows about music and she certainly knows about the cruelty of human nature.
Knotsworth is a school for the children of the rich. Children of popstars, rich aristocrats, Arabs with loads of money to spend, girls and boys who call their teachers by their first names, who only have lessons in the morning and who are locked in a relentless struggle not to be classed among the Rejects. This is what can happen
Then he saw Tore and the other Lads laughing at the other end of the room. Sparks and Mongol were holding something out of the window. Not a thing: a kid. He was being held upside down, forty feet off the ground, by the waist of his pants.
Johnny Tore, the son of the pop-singer Gore Tore is the cool boy who runs everything in the school. He respects nothing, is cruel and bullying, while skinny and unathletic, he somehow has established himself as invincible top dog. That is until Winthrop Sheen, a rich American student, expelled from so many other schools he has to be sent to Knotsworth, stands up to him.
Alice, known as Louse, by Johnny Tore and his followers, is at the school because her sister Poppy is married to the headmaster. She is lonely and interested in her studies and is thus highly unpopular with her fellow students. The other key character is a boy known as Grub, and he is one who has the perception but not the will to do good. He is Johnny Tore’s acolyte, but his main interest is in playing the piano and his forth coming music exams.
So what we have here is a kind of Lord of the Flies situation. An inadequate headmaster, a warring group of teachers, and a group of students most of whose lives are hellish.
Some aspects of the writing in this tale are less than perfect. The headmaster Simon Hart is so dull that it’s dull to read about him and the opening chapters in which he reads large chunks of the new prospectus he has created for the school to his bored wife Poppy is a pretty boring start. Their relationship is rather unconvincing and as for the teachers in the school… So many names and all forgettable. But it is Alice who sees things as they are and who is so alone, and whose fate we really care about. And it is Alice who is based on Amanda Craig herself.
She was sent to Bedales a ‘progressive coed school’ in England when she was thirteen. She suffered greatly here. Her parents were working abroad and she was quite unsupported. She says in her Afterword,
So there I was, stuck. All the trappings of a conventional public school had been rejected, in a uniformity of non-conformity… Sexism, social snobbery, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and prejudice against the disabled were endemic among the pupils…
When Amanda Craig wrote about her experiences in a national newspaper in 2010, following the expulsion of two pupils for under-age sex and getting drunk on a bottle of shop-lifted alcohol she was viciously attacked by internet hate mail from previous students at the school. As she makes clear in her book, those who are among the top dogs had the best years of their lives there, for the rest it was a scarring experience which not all pupils survived. Bedales and schools like it were established with the best motives; equality of the sexes and the creation of a democratic school community. I think the book shows that any school that has very little parent involvement is likely to have severe problems.
Well worth a read if you are interested in such things. A book that has its flaws, but which certainly stirs compassion for children abandoned to the mercies of the system.