GEORGE MONBIOT. The Unlearning (The Guardian 7-11-19)

There are two stark facts about British politics. The first is that they are controlled, to a degree unparalleled in any other Western European nation, by a tiny, unrepresentative elite. Like almost every aspect of public life here, government is dominated by people educated first at private schools, then at either Oxford or Cambridge.

The second is that many of these people possess a disastrous set of traits: dishonesty, class loyalty and an absence of principle. The current Prime Minister exemplifies them. What drives him? What enables such people to dominate us? We urgently need to understand a system that has poisoned the life of this nation for over a century.

I think I understand it better than most, because there is a strong similarity between what might have been the defining event of Boris Johnson’s childhood and mine. Both of us endured a peculiarly British form of abuse, that is intimately associated with the nature of power in this country. We were sent to boarding school when we were very young.

He was slightly older than me (11, rather than 8), but was dispatched, as so many boys were, after a major family trauma. I didn’t think a school could be worse than my first boarding school, Elstree, but the accounts that have emerged from his – Ashdown House – during the current independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, suggest that it achieved this improbable feat. Throughout the period when Johnson was a pupil, the inquiry heard, paedophilia was normalised. As the journalist Alex Renton, another ex-pupil, records, the headmaster was a vicious sadist, who delighted in beating as many boys as possible, and victimised those who sought to report sexual attacks and other forms of abuse.

Johnson was at first extremely hostile to the inquiry, describing it as money “spaffed up a wall”. But he later apologised to other former pupils. He has accepted that sexual assaults took place at the school, though he says he did not witness them. But a culture of abuse affects everybody, one way or another. In my 30s, I met the man who had been the worst bully at my first boarding school. He was candid and apologetic. He explained that he had been sexually abused by teachers and senior boys, acting in concert. Tormenting younger pupils was his way of reasserting power.

The psychotherapist Joy Schaverien lists a set of symptoms that she calls Boarding School Syndrome. The effects of early boarding, she finds, are similar to being taken into care, but with the added twist that your parents demand it. Premature separation from your family “can cause profound developmental damage”.

The justification for early boarding is based on a massive but common misconception. Because physical hardship in childhood makes you physically tough, the founders of the system believed that emotional hardship must make you emotionally tough. It does the opposite. It causes psychological damage that only years of love and therapy can later repair. But if there are two things that being sent to boarding school teach you, they are that love cannot be trusted, and that you should never admit to needing help.

On my first night at boarding school, I felt entirely alone. I was shocked, frightened and intensely homesick, but I soon discovered that expressing these emotions, instead of bringing help and consolation, attracted a gloating, predatory fascination.

The older boys, being vulnerable themselves, knew exactly where to find your weaknesses. There was one night of grace, and thereafter the bullying was relentless, by day and night. It was devastating. There was no pastoral care at all. The staff watched with indifference as the lives of the small children entrusted to them fell apart. They believed we should sink or swim. (The same philosophy applied to swimming, by the way: non-swimmers were thrown into the deep end of an unheated pool in March).

I was cut off from everything I knew and loved. Most importantly, I cut myself off from my feelings. When expressions of emotion are dangerous, and when you are constantly told by parents and teachers that this terrible thing is being done for your own good, you quickly learn to hide your true feelings, even from yourself. In other words, you learn the deepest form of dishonesty. This duplicity becomes a habit of mind: if every day you lie to yourself, lying to other people becomes second nature.

You develop a shell, a character whose principal purpose is to project an appearance of confidence and strength, while inside is all fear and flight and anger. The shell might take the form of steely reserve, expansive charm, bumbling eccentricity, or a combination of all three. But underneath it, you are desperately seeking assurance. The easiest means of achieving it is to imagine that you can dominate your feelings by dominating other people. Repressed people oppress people.

In adulthood you are faced with a stark choice: to remain the person this system sought to create, justifying and reproducing its cruelties, or to spend much of your life painfully unlearning what it taught you, and learning to be honest again: to experience your own emotions without denial, to rediscover love and trust. In other words, you must either question almost nothing, or question almost everything.

Though only small numbers of people went through this system, it afflicts the entire nation. Many powerful politicians are drawn from this damaged caste: David Cameron, for example, was seven when he was sent to boarding school. We will not build a kinder, more inclusive country until we understand its peculiar cruelties.

This  article was published by The Guardian on the 7th of November 2019


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3 Responses to GEORGE MONBIOT. The Unlearning (The Guardian 7-11-19)

  1. Avatar Neil hauxwell says:

    An acquaintance told me that at Geelong Grammar in the fifties , he was expected to get up at an early hour and run naked to have a cold shower. He remembered boarding school life with some fondness. He didn’t go on to politics or business , as perhaps his parents intended, but the experience probably helped prepare him for life as a dairy farmer.

  2. Avatar Jocelyn Pixley says:

    An anthropologist wrote The Public School Phenomenon in the 1970s showing the underlying aim was to instil in a designated future UK ruling class the ability to rule. It would break the often kindly ties to their mothers (and nannies), primarily, and the fagging system was so ghastly I still remember the book’s reports of the 19th century system. Younger boys would be bullied to toast bread for the older boys with their bare hands over an open fire. The system as George rightly says was cruel and many barely recovered, if at all. It played out in the worst excesses – Inglorious Empire – as an Indian Congress member puts it. Partition, Amritsar back to the cruel East India co (so grotesque they ‘didn’t even wash their bottoms’ reported by William Dalrymple) is not mentioned by the current Brexiteers. One poll in the 1990s showed most Englanders thought Australia was still a British colony, and had never heard of the horrors and rapacity the British committed against primarily the Indian populations but many, many others. India though was Britain’s ‘jewell’.

  3. Avatar Geoff Davies says:

    ‘Human madness is the howl of a child with a shattered heart.’
    – Robyn Grille, Parenting for a Peaceful World, 2008

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