It was supposed to be intimidating. That was the point. I organised a debate and I said I had to speak at it because this was about playing people at their own game. I had wondered at which point it was a good time to tell my colleagues that I had never actually been to a debate like this before, never mind having spoken at one, but the time never came so I kept it to myself. Fake it till you make it, Fraser.
I remember the first time I discovered the notion of debating. Certainly it wasn’t something I had encountered back home. My Bradford brain registered it as people arguing for the sake of it. People who didn’t have enough to care about scoring points for opinions they lacked the passion to hold dear. Just like parliament really. And for a long time I have held on to the belief that if you threw genuine emotion into these situations it would cut through all the bullshit rhetoric every time: that feeling always had to triumph over a lack of it. But that belief doesn’t stop the cold hard dread seeping through my veins in the days before the debate. Don’t let this scare you, in x factor speak you need to bring it, nail it, smash it.
I make the decision not to spend the day of the debate swatting up in the library but instead go to mass at the cathedral, in need of silence, incense, and a large dose of not my will but yours . At home I am altogether less holy and indulge myself with exfoliation and large amounts of Will.i.am, whose masterpiece “feeling myself” I have selected for my internal soundtrack for the day, keen to not only see the whole world from my third iris, but also, if possible, tour the whole world like a dirty pirate. Nothing could be more appropriate, and while many question the integrity and feminist credentials of one Miley Cyrus there can be no greater battle cry for someone attempting to bring down the patriarchy than to shake, shake that shit like a, like a, expert. I pamper myself to a degree where the school lollipop lady does not recognise me, surely no better sign for a tired mum of a successful transformation.
But as the hour approaches I felt increasingly edgy, hormonal, fragile. I go to the station to collect Nick Duffell and reflect on how on his quest to counter the ‘Rational Man project’ he has been left working with an irrational woman. I take him to see Alex Renton, who furnishes me with oatcakes (unbroken, unblemished, of course) which absorb some excess nerves and progesterone. I am quiet, because that’s how I go when I am scared, so I try and zone out a little. We take a taxi up through town when all three of us have all-day bus tickets, a scenario which at the best of times would have brought me out in a cold sweat but on a day like this makes me physically nauseous. I’ve used mine enough already, I say, but Duffell has only used his once and I made him buy it. I’ll take him on another bus later Renton soothes, and I know he’s lying but I’m happy to be humoured.
We arrive at Old College and I realise I have forgotten how beautiful it is. Its eerie in the dark too. By now I am feeling positively anti-social, and small. Not small in a self-confidence way so much as physically tiny. Having dug out the highest heals I own I am towering at a less than mighty five feet three. And these posh people are always so tall, my co-debaters, Eleanor Harvey Bathurst and Graham Hawley, are veritable giants. I don’t know if I am even going to be able to peep over the lectern. The room fills up and I realise I have a tendency to compartmentalise, I don’t like people from different parts of my life mixing, and so its very strange to see this crowd. People from church, university, school and of course breast-feeding club alongside therapists and boarding school boys. My husband, the crossover between these worlds: part of the story, but not necessarily part of this process. I am suddenly very moved when I spot child abuse campaigner Ian MacFayden and his wife, neither of whom I have never met in person before, and seeing them is a powerful reminder of just what is important here.
I live and breathe this argument so I have a fair idea of what I am going to come up against. For this reason I lay off the sob stories, the heartbreak, the horrors of abuse. Because I know it will play into the hands of the ‘it’s all different now’ brigade. The message is simple. Children should live at home. I know damn well the evidence is shaky but I also know that doesn’t matter, because you don’t need evidence for something as obvious as this. We have to take this argument out of the hyper-rational, scientific and un-human sphere that has allowed this madness to persist for so long. I will argue like a mummy and hopefully Nick Duffell will argue like a therapist and we will get there in the end. I stand up and hear myself speaking through the microphone. Mine is the kind of voice you don’t hear often I say, and mean it in more ways than one.
Then the comes the predictable stuff. Its different now, children don’t go away for months on end, most of them do flexi-boarding. I pick up my pen and write on my notebook: No. That Is Not True. I tell the audience I would like to clear up any confusion, only one in 13 boarders is a flexi-boarder, and even for the age group 7-11 the figure is only 40%. Emphatically not ‘most’. And with 30% of Scottish boarders being from abroad it is hard to imagine them popping home for Sunday dinner. The opposition says they would like to end the myth that boarding schools are for the rich and privileged. We hear the familiar arguments about the armed forces (buts it’s not the rank and file of the army, is it?) and bursaries (which you can still be eligible for if you earn £80,000 per year) but its unconvincing. Hawley bemoans how we don’t judge people who spend their money on second cars and skiing holidays (I do, as it happens) yet we judge people who make ‘sacrifices’ to send their children to fee-paying schools, and perhaps they deserve a tax break. At this point many members of the audience lose their battles with their composure and I try to keep hold of mine.
And there is an inevitable air of Jim Davidson about a lot of the arguments, a bit of the old ‘ I have friends who are poor, brown, yucky etc’. Hervey-Bathurst tells us that someone from her school’s mum worked in Tesco, and that a certain percentage are from Africa “in some way”. But tragically these attempts to show lack of exclusivity only hammer it home all the more powerfully, as when Hawley declares that some state boarding schools ‘only’ cost six or seven thousand pounds a year. They have shown better than I could have ever argued the lack of empathy, they are good people, lovely people, but they have not walked in others’ shoes, they have just not been where other people have been, and you can’t put whatever the opposite of a price is on that.
But this is not just a crowd baying for privileged blood, there is genuine concern for the value of childhood here and the protection of children. We are told that boarding schools offer expert pastoral care from people who are highly trained and skilled. I mention a four-letter word which is usually taboo: I ask about love. We don’t hear about it formal discussions often, but its important. I am in the love trade, its my job, so I know that. The head teacher tells us its all about love, that people who work in schools do love the children.
Can I ask for a definition of love then? Someone asks. Love is taking an interest, wanting people to do well, caring about them, watching them thrive, the head teacher tells us. But I am not so sure…love is the thing that we do when all these things run out. Love is what happens when we don’t feel like it, when there’s nothing to be proud of, nothing to enjoy. Love is the thing you do and work at and the hope you hold onto in the spaces between the good bits. Love is painful, brutal, relentless. But I have said enough, so I don’t say this. And because, too, I want this to be emotional but I don’t want to upset anyone. Hervey Bathurst is in some ways a powerful confident figure, and in many ways everything I am not: her life has taught her to believe in herself as much as mine has taught me not to. But she has as much right to her denial as I do to my anger, it is systems and structures that have caused the differences between the two women the audience are watching, and I can’t make it personal.
The vote goes our way and I am delighted. We did it kiddo says Duffell, and I am proud, and happy to be working as part of a team. My husband abstains from voting and I shout ‘that’s my husband’ in a Shakespearian, Desdemona-style moment. Everyone laughs, and I try to hope that I am pleased, try to quell the uncomfortable feeling that I am making a joke of something painful, that more and more survivor syndrome is creeping into my life each day. Its ok, I say, he just doesn’t believe in banning things. And I sort of agree with him, but these debates only work in black and white. I couldn’t have proposed “this house would ask you to reject binaries and see life in in all its nuanced Technicolor glory” as a motion…maybe you should have says husband. One step at a time, says I. It does hurt, a little bit. But no-one knows better than I do that we don’t get to choose how we are loved and supported.
Afterwards in the bar things unravel a bit and I start to enjoy people being out of their assigned compartments. An old friend from church music group and the lady who has been looking after my son all afternoon are trying to remember what Nick Duffell’s “The three ‘e’s” are. We are stuck after Empire and Elitism (well aren’t we all). Nick, what’s the third ‘e’? we shout. ENTITLEMENT he shouts back, and I wonder if I am too old to get my first tattoo…