“Is this a pain?” texts newspaper man. “No! its not a pain!” I reply, aware that my texts have been increasing in abruptness, not because ‘it’s a pain’ but because I am standing in the booze department of a German supermarket trying to decide whether to spend five euros on a bottle of wine which might be crap or three euros on one which will definitely be crap*. I am also trying to tell newspaper man which German towns I am near, in case there is someone nearby who can come and take my photograph. This seems unlikely, as I am deep in the Black Forest, unless they are doing a World Cup Special on rural german football supporters (“Aren’t we near where that woman got stuck in the giant vagina?” says my husband. “oh what could be more perfect than THAT” says I.) Nonetheless, I have been secretly quite excited about the thought of having my picture taken for the papers, I am wondering if I might look good in one of those traditional dresses, with lots of cleavage and some big glasses of beer and maybe a sausage or two, so for the rest of my holiday I keep a lipstick in my pocket, lest a team of paparazzi swarm into the Camping Kids disco halfway through Ich Bin Ein Musikant.
But if course they don’t. Which was probably a good thing really, because when it came down to it I was actually a bit freaked out by being in the Observer Magazine, and a full page spread of me dressed as a school girl cheerily spanking Alex Renton** would probably not have helped matters. So why was I freaked out? I am not sure really. My friends said the interview actually sounded like me (unlike this, which they all said sounds absolutely nothing like me). I thought I sounded a bit excessively jolly abrupt and northern but maybe I am in denial about my relative levels of jollity, abruptness and northerness. Though on some level I think was determined to remain a little light-hearted, because one of the things I have found particularly difficult in this whole business are the repugnant Guardian commenters*** who say things like ‘so your husband is a bit weird, why does he have to be a victim’ or whatever, because it makes me think Don’t you dare criticise my husband, he is not the one complaining, I am. Or perhaps I just seemed lighthearded because I was not talking about something quite so disturbing as the other interviewees; I was not talking about sexual abuse, because while I am obviously horrified by it, it is (thankfully) outwith experience and not something I know too much about.
I am, however, interested in the issue of abuse in terms of how incredibly vulnerable children who go to boarding school are. Numerous accounts describe how loneliness, longing for affection and approval lead young people particularly succeptible to being groomed and exploited, as with Don Boyd’s extroardinary description of ‘suitable boys’. I believe there is something a little more subtle at play aswell. My belief is that central to the boarding school experience is being told you feel things that you don’t. Being told you are happy when you are sad, being told you are lucky when you feel miserable, being told the food is nice when its revolting. The most powerful propagandist the world has ever seen would admire the british boarding schools for their ability not just to transmit lies, but to leave people totally confused as to what the truth is. And if you can raise people who fundamentally don’t know what they feel, and don’t know whether they are having a nice time or not, you can do anything to them.
Another feature of boarding school life up until recently which galvanised this propaganda was the censorship of communication, which not only allowed all manner of abuses to flourish, but I believe was tantamount to neglect and abuse in itself. I would argue that the moment boys were placed away from home in a situation where their letters would be read and their phone conversations listened to they were being abused; and that parents who sent children away knowing full well they had no means of honest communication, that if they were unhappy or being harmed they would simply not find out about it, were neglecting them.
Of course, its different now. They have mobile phones and email and yadda yadda yadda. Although if you were seven and something bad was happening to you or you were frightened or sad would you be able to tell your mum over the phone? Or would you need her to have have given you a cuddle and read you a story first? Because even if there was no bullying, no nastiness, nothing outstandingly awful happening, you would be sad sometimes. Because life is difficult, and growing up is difficult, and that’s why we need people we hold dear to hold us dearly. One of the other interviewees in Renton’s article speaks of being robbed of his right to intimacy by his abuser. His story is stark and heartbreaking. But what of those men who lose their right to intimacy just because they grow up in institutions? Because no-one ever touches them? Because they don’t hear their parents gently arguing over map-reading, or bickering over whose turn it is to wash up, or share meals and stories and ups and downs with people who LOVE them, not just people who are trained to monitor their well-being.
Of course, not everyone has these things. Families are not always loving, touch is not always safe, bickering does not all end in kissing and making up. But when some children’s families and homes are so awful that they must be taken away from them we treat that as a tragedy and something to be avoided at all cost. It is madness that for a different group of children, growing up outside of loving homes is viewed as a privilege. We must keep trying to end this madness, and to answer the delightfully polite and yet powerful plea near the end of Renton’s piece: “Please smash the system, public schools ruin lives.”
*I go with the latter, of course.
**this was never suggested, for the record, I am just being silly. And also I get to read the google search terms of people who read this blog and I know ‘spanking’ is quite important to a lot of you, so I aim to please…
***of course there are lots of nice Guardian commenters too.