I’m reading a book that I suspect is out of print called ‘Flannelled Fool’ by T.C.Worsley. It’s a memoir of his experiences in the public school system, as a boy at Marlborough and as a very young teacher at an unnamed school that I think must be Wellington. So far we’re in the 1930s, so it’s all very long ago, but even so, I’m taken aback by the strength of my reaction. His account of the athlete-worshipping, bullying, homoerotic hell that was public school then is deeply distressing.
Everyone believes their world is normal, and the masters and schoolboys would be astonished to be told otherwise, but from this distance his account presents a shocking perversion of all that is decent, honourable and loving. Such an adolescence could not fail to damage every boy who passed through it, at a profoundly deep level. And these became the men who governed the country! I know this is unoriginal as a thought, but the sheer vicious nonsense generated by the public school system has never struck me so forcibly before.
I was at a public school (Downside) in the 1960s, and it was heaven compared to Worsley’s schools. I’ve been to the Marlborough and the Wellington of today, both of which are co-ed, enlightened, and caring. But even so, a trace of the old ideology lingers, like a stubborn smell. These schools sell access to privilege; which means, to advantages not available to the many; so by definition everyone who uses them sees the world as a battleground where there are winners and losers. This is the link with the past. In the 1930s you tolerated being ‘basketed’ and caned and humiliated into conformity because you were gaining access to the elite. The suffering today is less; the goals remain the same.
Of course it’s commonplace to attack public schools for the unearned privilege they pass on, and the unfair advantages they sell. My dismay is at the smashing of human hearts. There are no great revelations in Worsley’s book, but as I read it I tremble for the generations of youths who were given self-confidence in shoddy exchange for the death of love.