Stiff Upper Lip by Alex Renton
“There are some books you need to have a cleansing shower after reading,” said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. “This is one of them.” Its subject is “physical, emotional and sexual abuse” at boys’ boarding schools, “especially in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s”. Aged eight, Alex Renton was sent to East Sussex prep school Ashdown House, where he was bullied, beaten, and sexually molested by one of the teachers. When, decades later, he wrote an article about his experiences, it “brought forth an outpouring” from readers, with hundreds writing to share similar (or worse) stories of abuse. In Stiff Upper Lip, Renton weaves these testimonies into a broader portrait of the English boarding school system. And the result is “devastating”. By the end, “I felt I was cowering in the corner of some cane-wielding headmaster’s study, whimpering: ‘Please, sir, no more, I can’t take it.’”
“Renton’s position is a polemical one,” said Sam Leith in The Guardian. He thinks that sending young children away to board is, “knowingly or unknowingly, an act of psychological cruelty”. He marvels at how parents “who had themselves been deeply unhappy at school” could go on to inflict the same fate on their children. This he attributes to “normalisation” – the “psychological mechanism” that enables people to rationalise their pain by deciding that it must have done them good. I did “cavil” at some of Renton’s rhetoric: the “pseudo-clinical idea”, for example, of “boarding school syndrome”; or his talk of “boarding school survivors”. Yet there’s also a “great depth of reading and thinking here”, along with much “startling” detail. This is a “brave and necessary book”.
It does have one significant weakness, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times: “there is no hint of another side to the story”. We now know that hardly any 20th century institutions, from churches and care homes to the BBC, “escaped the taint of abuse”. Boarding schools weren’t unique. And besides, by no means all were “cruel and uncaring”. At my own school, Malvern, “I was not beaten, bullied or abused. In fact, I loved it.” Yet none of this detracts from the “misery of Renton’s experience”, or the “lasting damage” that victims suffered. At one point, he interviews an ex-teacher and abuser named Maurice, who tells him that there’s a “positive side” to abuse, and that, as a society, “we’re going well over the top” in confronting it. “I defy anyone to read these words without a chill running down their spine.”