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Very public introspection

The content of “misery lit” is disturbing, but what purpose does it serve?

A Very Private School, Charles Spencer, William Collins, £17.98

There is a small sub-genre of “misery lit” which is dominated by (mostly) privileged men revisiting their hideous experiences at their boarding schools. Sad Little Men by Richard Beard (Radley College), Stiff Upper Lip by Alex Renton (Ashdown House), One of Them by Musa Okwonga (Eton) and Home at Last by Mark Stibbe (Winchester) are some of the most recent additions to this most depressing of reading lists. Even C-list celebrities have got in on the act, with remainder bins no doubt familiar with untouched editions of Raw by Antony Worrall Thompson (King’s Canterbury).  

They have now been joined by Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana, and by far the most pukka and blue-blooded of them all. His new autobiography, A Very Private School, depicts, in all its sepia-tinted awfulness, the time he spent at Maidwell Hall prep school, which he joined, aged eight years old, as a boarder, in 1972.

The school was run by the headmaster, Jack Porch, a sadistic paedophile who preyed on young boys and gained sexual gratification from caning them as they were bent over his pouf, naked from the waist down.  With grim inevitability Porch adopted a quasi-religious tone to his worst abuses, asking the boys to confess their “sins” to him, whilst telling them that he was now their “father”. The canings could be so brutal that some of his victims still have the scars. These passages are written with unflinching clarity by Spencer.

Such abuses are shocking, but have to be read in the context of the time. The past is another country, and they do things differently there. Before 1992 (when Ofsted was established) schools were not regulated, and they were undoubtedly more violent places than they are now. Nor was this was confined to boarding schools: in my own rural comprehensive in Wales, in the 1970s, the woodwork teacher used to throw chisels at the heads of misbehaving boys, while the art teacher, no doubt an admirer of Hemingway, would put our easels in a ring and told boys to box each other, often with serious injuries. Canings were administered for the most minor of offences, and anything mobile was thrown with venom across classrooms at ducking children. As far I know no parents complained.

But of course children in boarding schools lived in often isolated communities, cut off from their families for whole terms, unable to get to a phone, and only allowed to write home once a week. They were particularly vulnerable: there were no safeguarding processes, no DBS checks, no inspections, and parents were often not allowed to visit; it would have been surprising if they had not attracted people like Porch, or worse. Bedtime could be particularly terrifying. Today those schools are fundamentally different places, but there are some who argue that because they had experiences similar to Spencer’s all boarding schools are damaging places, regardless that many people, often without book deals and podcasts, enjoyed their school days at them. 

What interests Spencer, though, is why his family (and many others) were prepared to be so willing to allow their children to attend such places: “my parents weren’t being deliberately cruel” he writes in the introduction, “they were simply being true to the custom of their class”. Which is no doubt true, but they were also not stupid either, and they knew that Maidwell’s drilling of the boys to pass the Common Entrance exams resulted in a high proportion of them going on to Winchester, Harrow, Rugby, Stowe and, in Spencer’s case,  Eton. And from there, no doubt, would be other welcoming academic quads, before successful careers. This was a life of privilege, and Spencer acknowledges it, in passing at least.

One can’t help wondering whether this book would have been commissioned … if it hadn’t been written by a Spencer

Material privilege and emotional disadvantage are often fascinating polarities, but they don’t light up Spencer’s prose. Much of A Very Private School is rather dull: not much happens of interest, and it is only when we see into Spencer’s astonishingly opulent life, and when we read of it colliding with the many privations he experiences at his school, that the dull tedium of the many descriptive passages lift. There are four pages describing the (uneventful) drive from his home to Maidwell (in his father’s red Jaguar) for his first day at school; numerous passages describing the dormitories (including why they were painted in certain colours), a page on porridge, another on bathing arrangements, and what they did in the Combined Cadet Force (which is not surprisingly described as “the most militaristic part of the Maidwell day”). One can’t help wondering whether this book would have been commissioned if it wasn’t another tale about the grimness of boarding schools, and if it hadn’t been written by a Spencer.

This tendency to add detail after detail when less would have been more interesting and credible, is nowhere more evident than in the conversations he has in school with other pupils and staff. He states that the “reported speech is as near to the truth as I can remember”, but these are the recollections of an eight year old boy from over half a century ago. How reliable are they? What is more surprising is that this almost total recall is, elsewhere, surprisingly patchy: for instance, his grandmother had two memorial services in the rather grand All Saints’ Church in Northampton but his memories of the events “are few”. 

What explains this inconsistent memory? Is it because Spencer so desperately wants to give colour to the crimes he describes that he is prepared to create dialogue that is true in spirit but of questionable accuracy? Or is that he wants to give voice to that boy who, he admits, died somewhere between the ages of eight and thirteen? After all, he dedicates the book to himself, or rather to “Buzz”, the nickname his mother gave him before she too abandoned him for Peter Shand Kydd. It is that subtext, of being abandoned by his mother, that haunts this book, and goes some way to explaining his broken marriages and inability to understand intimacy. And such experiences often do lie behind the complex lives of others who, understandably, wish to blame institutions, rather than families, for the difficulties they’ve had later in life.

At the end of the book he admits that he wanted to “reclaim” his childhood, and it is this desire which puts him in conflict not only with his own past, but also his parents’ generation, and that stoicism we now judge as being repressive and unhealthy. That England of quiet reserve died spectacularly with his sister and gave rise to a new lingua franca of expression. It is a process of endless self-analysis and public exculpation that is nowhere better personified than in Spencer’s nephew, Prince Harry. And terribly sad though each tale is, here they are, at the top of a new hierarchy of victimhood, resurrecting their “narratives”, seeking “closure” from the endless rounds of interviews on bright sofas in daytime television studios, blessed with their secure network of connections and the sympathy of an age that allows them to be heard, book deal after book deal after book deal.

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