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Vol. 18 No. 17 · 5 September 1996
Diary

The Buttocks Problem

Paul Foot

2600 words

It’s rare to be able to test a book against one’s own direct experience of its subject-matter. I therefore make full use of mine, as a pupil at Shrewsbury School in the Fifties. In his Foreword to a new biography of Anthony Chenevix-Trench,* one-time headmaster of Eton, Sir William Gladstone writes that Trench’s ‘interest was in drawing out the best from boys as individuals’. Another interest, not mentioned by Sir William, lay in drawing down the underpants of boys – as individuals – before ordering them to lie on his sofa while he spanked their bare buttocks. In his Introduction, the author Mark Peel pays tribute to Trench’s ‘common touch’ without referring to his most common touch of all: the sensuous fingering of his pupils’ buttocks before and during the interminable beatings. He goes on to describe Trench’s ‘contribution to the life of the school’, in this case Bradfield:

He was in addition tutor and confessor to a large number of his flock. Those who were the holders of unflattering reports were summoned to the study on account of their lackadaisical ways. Such indolence might lead to an immediate thrashing, but these encounters were normally forward-looking and liberating in their tone. Because the majority appreciated Tony’s concern for their welfare, they would happily comply with his instructions to return at recurring intervals to submit an up-to-date account of their progress ... Housemasters were known to be kept waiting to see Tony as some fourth former had the Latin gerund carefully explained to him. By dint of personal rapprochement many of Tony’s geese became swans.

At Shrewsbury, I was one of Trench’s geese – he was my housemaster from 1952 to 1955. When I first encountered him I was 14, underdeveloped, and utterly bored with the way I was being taught classics. Trench closely followed reports from the classroom and suggested I could improve my performance by regular visits to his study with my prepared work. He seemed to have endless time for these encounters, and the reason quickly became clear. He announced that if there were fewer than three mistakes in the work, I would get a piece of chocolate; if more than three mistakes, a beating. Beating on the backside with a cane was a common practice in the house, but it was usually inflicted by senior boys on their juniors. A beating by the housemaster was a serious and painful business. The prospect drove me to approach some of the older Greek scholars in the house, who, in solidarity with my predicament, helped all they could. The standard of my Greek translations improved miraculously, but three mistakes could usually be found. A beating was certain, but then, to my relief, the prospect of the cane diminished. Trench explained that I had a ‘choice’: the cane, with trousers on; or the strap, with trousers off. There was no choice, really, though Trench enormously enjoyed watching me make it.

When the relatively painless strap was nominated, he became extremely cheerful and excited. Clapping his hands in joyful anticipation, he would lead me out of the study to his upstairs sitting-room on the ‘private side’ of the house, where he locked the door, pulled down my trousers and pants, lowered me onto his sofa and laid into me with his belt. The blows hardly hurt at all, though the humiliation was excruciating. The worst part of the ordeal, however, was yet to come.

The beating over, Trench would insist on the deep and lasting nature of his friendship with me. In particular, he was keen to get my approval for what he had done. Wasn’t it only fair, he drawled, to offer a boy a choice of punishment? ‘Oh yes, sir,’ was the prompt reply. On one occasion, Trench, who stank more than usually of drink, questioned me closely as to whether I thought there was anything reprehensible in his behaviour. ‘Oh no, sir! Of course not, sir.’ Did I ever contemplate the possibility, he continued, that he was some sort of paederast (a word which he pronounced, probably correctly, ‘piederast’). ‘Oh, my goodness no, sir,’ I stammered, quite honestly, since I had not the remotest idea what paederast meant. My slender knowledge of Greek helped me a little – pais, ‘child’; eros, ‘love’. But when, in probably the only piece of independent research I conducted in my first three years at Shrewsbury, I looked up the word in the dictionary, I found, simply: ‘paederast: n. sodomite.’ And I was none the wiser. Trench was not a sodomite. In a revealing remark to a senior boy at Bradfield he described buggery as ‘not only messy but futile’. He was what is now known as an abuser. He derived sexual pleasure from causing pain to young boys, especially by smacking their bare buttocks.

All the boys at School House, Shrewsbury, knew of this abuse. The identities of Trench’s special victims were also well known. Peel quotes the then headmaster of Shrewsbury, Jack Peterson, describing the reaction when, in 1952, he disclosed the name of the new housemaster to the boys at School House. ‘There was first an audible intake of breath, then the widest grins on all faces and finally when I got out of the room a pandemonium of excited and happy chattering.’ Peterson, whose lack of contact with schoolboys was legendary, took this to be a sign of delight at Trench’s appointment. In fact, as I clearly recall, the laughter was mainly in mockery, the chattering in amazement, distress and even fear. Only two years previously Trench had been ‘house tutor’ (with extensive powers to beat boys) and his passion for bare bums was the subject of much gossip. Older boys with broken voices and hairs on their legs had nothing to worry about. Treble-voiced, smooth-legged classics students should try to keep out of his way. Most of the older boys who remembered Trench were inclined to excuse his strange behaviour on the grounds that he had had ‘a bad war’ – at least six months building the Burma railway as a prisoner of the Japanese. I could never quite understand why ill-treatment by the Japanese should drive a man to child abuse, so I am delighted to find the Burma excuse put to flight by Francis King, a school contemporary of Trench’s. He remembers Trench the schoolboy as ‘supercilious, capricious and cruel’ long before the Japanese ever laid a finger on him.

Mark Peel describes the floggings at Shrewsbury as ‘a real outlet for Trench’s unabated enthusiasm and carefree simplicity’. His line is backed up by other, older boys of the time who insist that Trench’s beatings didn’t do them any harm. My own often expressed hostility is explained away by Peel with reference to my supposed political antagonism to Trench. I am ashamed to admit that when I was 14 or 15 at Shrewsbury I had no political views at all. Nor is the case for or against Trench a rerun, as Peel pretends throughout, of the old argument for or against corporal punishment. Enthusiasm throughout the public schools for corporal punishment obviously provided a cover for Trench’s consistent abuse. But Trench was assaulting boys in his charge for one reason only: his own sexual gratification.

We boys all knew as much, and so, I suspect, did several other members of staff – but not the parents. The key to Trench’s rise in the public schools was his mastery of public relations. He spent hours gushing to parents about the brilliance, wit and sporting prowess of their sons. The parents, kept in the dark by that instinctive solidarity with which adolescents protect each other against the adult world, adored him. Not one of us would have dreamt of ‘sneaking’ on Trench to our parents or to any other adult. In 1955, to the intense relief of everyone in School House, Trench, then only 36, was appointed headmaster of Bradfield. His new position gave him even more power to indulge what Peel calls his ‘foibles’. He won universal praise as a headmaster who continued to teach, but he carefully picked classes of 14-year-olds whom he could invite to his study for extra-curricular supervision.

After reading this book, I telephoned David Blackie, who now runs a computer language course in Bedfordshire, and who was unlucky enough to be patronised by Trench at Bradfield in the early Sixties. Blackie is quoted by Peel as criticising Trench’s ‘penchant for unrestricted and unsupervised corporal punishment of adolescent boys’. Our long conversation took us back more than three decades to the Trench study, and those tortuous conversations about punishment alternatives. ‘I was once beaten on the marital bed,’ Blackie reported in disgust. He reminded me of something I’d forgotten: Trench’s habit of insisting before delivering each blow that his victim must not contract his buttocks in anticipation. ‘Just relax’ was the persistent growl from the great educationalist.

David Blackie was beaten over and over again during nocturnal visits to the headmaster’s house to ‘go over’ his classical compositions. He was certainly not the only one at Bradfield who got the Trench treatment. Yet at Bradfield, too, there was universal ignorance of the abuse among parents and authorities. Sir Eric Faulkner, later chairman of Lloyds Bank, who sat on Bradfield’s council and in 1964 became warden, is quoted here as saying: ‘We were never worried by his use of corporal punishment.’ Consequently, Peel records, the fact that Trench was a prolific and consistent abuser of young boys played no part in the discussions which shot him, in 1963, to the highest pinnacle of his profession: the headmastership of Eton.

The tone and style of Peel’s book are admirably established in its opening sentence: ‘As Britain awoke from the long, hard winter of 1962-63 the news that Anthony Chenevix-Trench had been appointed headmaster of Eton brought a spring to the step of all those who bemoaned the growing sense of drift and complacency in the country.’ Never mind that Trench had been a crusted Tory ever since, at the age of 19, he had campaigned for Quintin Hogg in the ‘appeasement’ by-election in Oxford in 1938. Never mind that drift and complacency were two of Trench’s most enduring characteristics. The arch-flogger, arch-creep and arch-hypocrite had somehow established himself as a wonderful teacher (which he was not: in the classroom as elsewhere he was discursive, reckless and self-obsessed) and a reformer (which he wasn’t either). He was sycophantic enough to his superiors to survive for a long time at Eton. Even his increasing dependence on alcohol could have been overlooked in an environment where drunkenness was generally considered a sign of manliness. Only one thing cut short his career at Eton: the buttocks problem.

Again and again, his lust for flogging upset the delicate balance of control at Eton, where corporal punishment, though central to the culture, was traditionally a matter for housemasters and senior boys. The more difficult he found his job (he was a hopeless administrator), the more Trench lashed out at boys’ bottoms. These boys were not, as at Shrewsbury and Bradfield, the sons of mere Northern manufacturers or Home Counties bourgeoisie. Their fathers were dukes, earls and viscounts who were not at all opposed to corporal punishment but who expected a modicum of consistency in its application to their own sons. When Trench turned down the advice of head boy James Mackay and flogged a couple of seniors for staying out late, Mackay told his father, the Earl of Inchcape. Rough treatment of the appropriately-named Viscount Brocas caused dismay in the household of his father, Earl Jellicoe. I recall the outraged indignation of the young Hume Shawcross, son of Lord Shawcross, who travelled to the offices of Private Eye to spill the beans. Also expelled was Caspar, son of Ann Fleming, whose influence in high society was legendary. In White’s and Brooks’s and at the Carlton the conversation turned invariably to ‘the flogger they’ve got in charge of Eton’. There was only one thing for it: the bounder had to go.

Trench was sacked. That he was a drunkard and a child abuser could not be revealed, so he left in a blaze of glory. The Eton Chronicle, in what must have been a stab at satire, mourned the departure of ‘a gentle and considerate schoolmaster’. There were the usual feasts, at which Trench was showered with the usual gifts and the usual breathtaking hypocrisy. The official explanations poured out of a well-oiled Rentaquote machine. Tony was tired, Tony was ill. It was time for a change. Throughout the long process of dismissal, there was hardly a public whisper about the conduct that had occasioned it. He applied for the headmastership of Fettes. ‘We did examine his application to see if anything would invalidate it,’ said the chairman of the school’s finance committee, ‘but of course there was nothing.’

Ludovic Kennedy, whose daughter went to Fettes in the Trench years, has revealed that his floggings grew in intensity as the years went on. Often, in desperation, Trench picked out wholly innocent boys for beating. He became ill and resorted increasingly to drink. Early in 1979, he was sacked. Before he could be ousted from his lodgings, he died, aged just over 60. This time, the chorus of official praise was tinged with relief.

When I first wrote about Trench’s beating habits, in Private Eye in 1969, one or two amateur psychologists suggested that my encounters with him had made me bitter and formed my anti-public school opinions. In fact, I was very happy at Shrewsbury, especially in my last year, when Trench was replaced at School House by Michael Charlesworth, a kind and courteous man, quite the opposite of his predecessor. It is not true, as naive left-wing rhetoric sometimes has it, that British public schools dragoon their boys into rigid and orthodox opinions. At Shrewsbury in the mid-Fifties, as I suspect in every other similar school, older boys were encouraged to think for themselves. Laurence le Quesne, who taught history, urged me every week to read the leader in Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman. Frank McEachran, a Henry George Liberal by politics, introduced me not just to a different Milton and Shakespeare but to entirely unheard-of poets: Auden, Eliot, Hopkins, E.E. Cummings. These were taught by McEachran not as classroom fodder but as living poets. In that last summer of 1956 there was no cruelty or sadism endured or inflicted. I was sad to leave, and was naturally grateful to the public school system for its many advantages. My opposition grew later, as I came to see the narrow, prejudiced exclusivity on which the system depends.

It is this tendency that explains the resistible rise in life and after death of Anthony Chenevix-Trench. Just as the earls and viscounts rallied to protect their boys’ buttocks, so, in the general interests of snob schools, they rallied to protect his reputation. Peel’s wretched hagiography, full of clichés and bad jokes, is part of that process. If Tony Trench was a little ‘exuberant’ with his floggings, so what? Peel tells us: ‘His bent for personal relationships amongst his pupils wasn’t simply the means to an end, it was the end.’ The dark side of Trench must be passed over because of the ‘overriding need of boarding schools like his to create leaders of men’. In any normal circumstances, he should have been the subject of a police investigation and criminal charges. In the world of the public schools, however, he is a heroic figure.

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Vol. 18 No. 18 · 19 September 1996

I write in admiration for Paul Foot’s frankness as a barer of buttocks and bringer of bad news (LRB, 5 September). It is never too late to lie down and retell the tale. I attended a stinking little preparatory school in Berkshire from the age of seven. The first time I was beaten by the headmaster was in my second term; I had just turned eight. (Numbers seem as magically important now as they did then.) Four strokes on the right buttock with a jokari bat for having run up a total of, yes, four ‘minus points’ in the weekly plus-and-minus accounting of conduct. Talking after lights out, bad prep, running in the corridors of this miserable establishment, sniggering in chapel (two services a day), a missing shoelace at games – all these incurred minus points. Once you had collected four minus points or more in a week, you had to explain the circumstances of each in writing and present them to the headmaster – in my case, the figure four was often reached before the weekend, and so the text, containing four, five or possibly six little paragraphs, would be ready by the time the summons was generally issued – before grace on Friday lunch, an intractable kedgeree, rather less edible than usual, in view of what lay in store.

On the occasion of my debut beating, I stood to attention in the headmaster’s study, and behaved like a toy soldier, ready for some sacrificial stand. The pain was very impressive and I burst into tears. Summoned for many more beatings over the next four years, or four and a half, I never behaved like a toy soldier again and never cried. The number of strokes varied over the years. Four or six were standard, but I remember receiving a restrained three and an indecisive five. The jokari bat left a red disc on the right buttock which glowed for a day or so and then turned blueish-brown as it faded. You could see it most clearly, of course, on other boys in the showers.

On one occasion, I had six strokes of the cane and was treated for the results, along with a handful of other offenders, by the matron’s assistant. Only one of our number – nine boys in all, caned in ascending order of seniority – was reduced to tears. I still think of that as a victory.

The headmaster, who would have been in his early sixties, was also a Latin teacher. In class, during a particularly grim period for the school, he would often bleed from the ear as he was roused to a frenzy by our shortcomings, dishing out minuses that might or might not be traded in later for a beating. But in class there was safety in numbers. One to one in his study was a more unforgettable business. Thirty-five years later, I remember the smell of that little room, of his hands as he helped me pull my shirt tails out of my shorts – tobacco smoke on skin – and the tapestry scene on the stool where I took up the required position, folded in three, so to speak, with the knees drawn up under the chin and the feet under the buttocks: a pretty piece of English woodland with pheasants – two, maybe more – rising from the scrub, put up by a diligent gundog. Maybe that’s the sort of place where the great British prep school was supposed to take you in the end. It strikes me as a desolate spot, where all traces of the schoolboy solidarity to which Foot refers have vanished. Everyone is on his own, getting older and sinking quietly into the grounds of his estate. It’s a kind of class punishment, though, and in that sense collective. I’m glad it hasn’t happened to Foot.

D.O. Endall
London N5

Vol. 18 No. 19 · 3 October 1996

Apart from general arguments against corporal punishment, Paul Foot is clearly right (LRB, 5 September) about the grotesque unsuitability of Anthony Chenevix-Trench as a headmaster in a position to beat pupils. Trench no doubt had academic gifts and teaching abilities, but he quite possibly owed his appointment to an establishment-minded respect for his war service, and the horrors and humiliations he had suffered in a Japanese POW camp; and it may well have been these that actually helped to make him even more unsuitable. Imagine being taught, and perhaps flogged, by Lawrence of Arabia! Never trust any sort of war hero where boys are concerned? But like many in the age group that missed a major war, Foot may prefer not to know what happened to those who did not miss it. It was a common attitude after both world wars (see the memoirs of Powell and Waugh) and a very natural one. Although war bores were still two a penny in the Fifties, Trench at least did not perpetrate a Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

John Bayley
Oxford

To read Paul Foot’s Trenchiad within weeks of his piece on Kincora Boys’ Home and MI5 (LRB, 5 September) is a disturbing experience. The tone, the language, the hatred, is much the same for a case of paedophilic sexual abuse condoned and exploited by government agents and that of a schoolmaster who misused his legitimate powers of corporal punishment. These are not the same offences, nor ever have been in any legal canon. I know nothing of Kincora, but I did know Trench, probably not a lot less well than Paul Foot. The effect on me of reading the two pieces together is to doubt not my own memories but the balance of Foot’s Kincora judgments.

Foot will not have had to read far into the book to find my own encounter with Chenevix-Trench’s penchant. I seem to be one of few who bettered the little man, surely because I was by then very senior and potentially quite a nuisance. Like Foot, I was appalled by that aspect of his schoolmastership. In my final year, I conspired with the now Chief Secretary to the Treasury to conduct a public debate on corporal punishment that very nearly persuaded senior Etonians of the mid-Sixties – not easily persuaded of this or anything else – that corporal punishment had to go. Trench could have stopped us, and probably wanted to. But he didn’t. The reasons for telling which story are its demonstration, first, that a few, a growing few, of us were by then becoming aware that beating was a revolting means of punishment, precisely because of the way it distorted the behaviour of otherwise potentially enlightened people at both ends of the cane, our own headmaster among them; but second, as Foot well knows, that the Sixties saw the first steps towards the disappearance of a means of disciplining the young that had been standard since as far back as we know about education. Birch-rod humour had been a staple of young male culture for two and a half millennia at least. The point about Trench is not that he did it like his predecessors, the admired Robert Birley, the infamous Keate and all the rest – but that there was something odd about the way he did it. The reasons were doubtless sexual. No doubt they were so in thousands of other cases of pedagogic brutality. That does not make Trench or any of the rest of them into child-abusers on a Kincora scale. He deserves better than to become a by-name because he came at the end of a very long story where there have been many villains as bad or worse. If corporal punishment is child abuse, then it is a fact, regrettable but undeniable, that this vice lies at the root of Western (and not only Western) culture.

I carry no particular torch for Chenevix-Trench. He had many good ideas about what should happen to Eton, nearly all of which were blocked by unregenerate reactionaries of a sort that more usually people Foot’s well-stocked pillory. But he was not an easy man to like; and, yes, he was no great teacher. Foot is right about his pervasive charm. But he was a sad case, not a bad one. Which brings me to a final point. However many child-abusers Foot may or may not have known, he must have known many, many ‘drunkards’. He is surely conscious enough of alcoholism to be aware that those who drink as Trench did are not the exponents of yet another vicious habit but victims of a tragically destructive disease. The odds are that, had Trench been born twenty years later, that weakness could have been corralled, just as the other must perforce have been reined in.

In reading and admiring Foot’s searing pieces, I have sometimes wondered where all this fury comes from. Perhaps the answer is, after all, the wretched Trench; in which case, Foot stands convicted of the same posterior obsession as his tormentor. My view of the world, that of a historian rather than a journalist, is that it is peopled by inadequates, not villains; people who misuse (much more often than abuse) power, precisely because they have no real clue what to do with it. Foot persuades me that Kincora was a story of unrelieved villainy. My experience of Trench, as of most rulers of academic establishments where I have studied and taught, was not of a villain but of a figure both waving and drowning. Really good educationalists are extremely rare. Utter shits, in my experience, are rarer. Trench was neither. Foot’s villains need exposure. His inadequates deserve something more penetrating.

Patrick Wormald
Christ Church, Oxford

It was not only masters who were floggers and not only boys who were flogged. I was regularly beaten by my father from the age of seven or eight, usually for ‘being rude to Mummy’. I soon realised that he would stop as soon as I cried and so, like D.O. Endall (Letters, 19 September), made it a point of honour not to cry. This prolonged the beating but also gave me – I felt – the moral victory. With the exception of Curzon’s governess, Miss Paraman, I know few examples of women as floggers. There was no corporal punishment at my girls’ boarding school. Instead, we were punished by humiliation: being forced to eat lunch standing up in front of the whole school, for example. I don’t think I minded this very much. It certainly wasn’t as bad as being beaten. I’m sure my father wasn’t a sadist and I don’t think he enjoyed beating me. He probably did it to save face with ‘Mummy’. She would be in a nearby room, crying, while my punishment was meted out and would hug me and apologise afterwards.

Angela Lambert
London SW5

Paul Foot’s admirable Diary has made me feel that there is still some hope for the country. When, in 1978, my book The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After was published, sniggers were audible. Why didn’t I write something serious? Since then corporal punishment has been abolished in the state schools and virtually so in those hotbeds of flagellomania, the ‘prep’ and ‘public’ variety, thanks in no small measure to pressure from Europe, where the sado-masochistic connotations of the practice have long been recognised. So it would seem that there is some consensus that the beating system was pernicious.

Flagellomania is no sniggering matter. It catches on well before puberty, and once established, it stays put. ‘I was so us’d to ’tat Westminster School I could never leave it off since,’ says Snarl to the prostitute in Shadwell’s The Virtuoso (1676). The remark pinpoints the obsessive nature of the flagellant fantasy – and the certainty of impotence without its assistance. Freud found that patients could only talk about it ‘with hesitation’, such was the deep shame involved.

London’s telephone boxes today are eloquent proof that thousands of professionals are still needed in the capital to provide some relief to what one hopes are the last victims of the vice anglais. A national sickness perpetrated from on high and ably represented, we now know, by the repellent Chenevix-Trench.

Ian Gibson
Restábal, Spain

Caught reading – C.V. Wedgwood’s Thirty Years War, I recall absurdly – during a tedious science lesson, I was sent by the master to Tony Chenevix-Trench, my housemaster, bearing a petulant note recommending a caning. Perhaps delighted that a pupil of his should read anything not frivolous, C-T tore up the note and gave me an impromptu and vivid demonstration of how the Japanese took him prisoner. Seizing his bicycle from the wall he rode crazily round his study and me – much startled – explaining how in Singapore he was riding a motorbike from which he fell, at which point in his narrative he crumpled at my feet with the bicycle on top of him. Whether he was inviting flagellation, who knows? Resuming his story, C-T got to his feet and found he was surrounded by Japanese soldiers. What saved his life was the discovery that he was shorter than the smallest of them!

That C-T acquired much notoriety – and contempt – for his degrading practice of offering boys the choice of being caned with trousers up or spanked with trousers down is well attested. I have wondered since whether this oddity was not so much sadism on Tony’s part as his equally odd method of detecting latent perversion in those who preferred a spanking: he would spend hours getting to the root, as it were, of boys’ difficulties – to be sure a questionable if well-meaning practice.

Mark Peel’s biography – a decent and sympathetic work – leaves one with a strong impression that Tony was an inadequate personality, though I remember to this day what an inspiring teacher he was and the élan with which he threw Thucydides at us! What really grated with boys was Tony’s transparent unreliability; to promise 36 boys a place in the Henley First Eight may have been kindly meant (or euphoria on Tony’s part) but to his boys it seemed silly and untrustworthy. Excessive chumminess and his beating habits became a joke and undignified.

Michael Hodges
London SW17

Paul Foot’s Diary recalls my own experience of flogging at Fettes where Chenevix-Trench’s penchant for the cane led to his second, final, sacking. But beating was a long-established practice at that snobby Edinburgh school, and I was disappointed to hear Tony Blair, another Old Fettesian, declare in the course of a BBC radio interview, that he had been at a flogging seminary and it ‘had done him no harm’.

In my day there, when rain poured down on half-holidays, we had to go on a long run instead of playing rugby. If you felt sophisticated, as I and three friends did, aged 14 or 15, you booked a fives court and went on a permitted short run; and if you were still smarter, you missed even that by dodging unobtrusively into another house for half an hour or so, cooling your heels. But we were spotted that Saturday, and on the following Monday we were summoned before the head of school and given a pie-jaw of which we understood not one word except that we had ‘disgraced the school’. These were innocent times and we had not heard of, much less practised, the sexual perversions which it was assumed, as a matter of course, we had been up to. The six prefects administered six whacks each on our behinds with what resembled billiard cues. This seemed excessive punishment for not going on a short run.

Only later that term, when the head of school was expelled for the offence it was alleged we had committed, did we learn what it was. We did not resent the beating too much for we enjoyed being celebrities for 24 hours – perhaps another reason for deploring a maladroit and ludicrous practice, Mr Blair!

James MacGibbon
London NW3

Vol. 18 No. 20 · 17 October 1996

Paul Foot’s reference to F.E. McEachran as a rare and civilised teacher is, I suspect, more ironic than he realises (LRB, 5 September). For when, in the Thirties, McEachran was teaching at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, he became involved in a farcical and rather tragic episode to do with beating that resulted in his resignation.

McEachran was one of those eccentrics who are only employable at independent schools. Ostensibly he taught modern languages, religious studies and economics (if promoting Douglas Credit theories could be called teaching economics). But whatever he was teaching, he was liable to pause, and then, gazing distractedly towards the ceiling, launch into a lengthy recitation of, as it might be, Richard II’s speech, ‘Come let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings’; Eliot’s ‘Let us go then, you and I’; or Phèdre’s ‘Tout m’afflige, et me nuit, et conspire à me nuire.’ He drew his spells, as he called them, from a multiplicity of languages, ancient and modern, one of them a very brief and melodious spell in Hungarian which he refused to translate for us but which I subsequently discovered meant ‘It is forbidden to spit in the tram.’ Thus we became entranced with a great deal of memorable literature, which only the most philistine or foolhardy boy would dare to interrupt.

But when any such boy did misbehave, McEachran would solemnly summon him to the front of the class and go through an absurd ritual of ‘fouetting’ him with an ancient umbrella. This chastisement was, as can be imagined, totally painless, but was performed most seriously as a symbolic gesture. Alas, one unusually beastly little boy wrote to his mother complaining that he had been ‘flogged’, and this in a school which prided itself on having no punishments but, instead, an honour system of owning up to one’s housemaster about any misdemeanours one had committed. The boy’s mother duly wrote a severe letter to that most honourable of headmasters, J.R. Eccles, who, to his great embarrassment, felt obliged to mention the complaint to McEachran, but adding that he hoped he would promptly forget all about it. To the dismay of Eccles and everyone else, McEachran resigned on the spot. A few days later virtually the whole school, staff and boys, gathered to bid him farewell as he walked off with his umbrella to his digs in Holt, and thence to Mount Olympus, which he had never been able to visit. Once in Greece he walked from village to village, reciting Homer in his English public school accent. Apparently word went ahead of him and the peasants turned out to greet him and listen to the spell of Homer’s all but forgotten verse.

Boris Ford
Bristol

Vol. 18 No. 22 · 14 November 1996

Boris Ford’s welcome recollections of F. McEachran (Letters, 17 October) omit to mention his Spells and More Spells. I only met him once but I immediately recognised in him an unusual character. It was in a crowded pub opposite Shrewsbury station in 1943. He was with a young soldier of the Free French Forces whom he was evidently seeing off after the soldier had addressed his pupils. He had a copy of Du côté de chez Swann under his arm. I also was a soldier and had once written a thesis on Proust.

Boris Ford’s reminiscences show him to have been of the lineage of Elam, the eccentric, indocile master of St Paul’s School described in Ernest Raymond’s Through Literature to Life (1928) and portrayed in Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, who would be similarly unlikely to find a place at the present day, even in an independent school. I was reminded in turn of a master in Dynevor School, Swansea in the Thirties, one D.H. Morgan, whose ‘lessons’ were a tissue of mesmerising elaboration, a fantastic tapestry woven of English literature, theology, economics, astrology, local history, politics, anything except the Welsh language he was hired to teach us.

Forty years on I found among the books left to me by my colleague M.F.M. Meiklejohn, ornithologist and professor of Italian (himself one of the same breed), who had been at Gresham’s, the two volumes named above, presentation copies signed ‘Kek’, which continue to occupy an honoured place on my shelves.

Stanley Jones
University of Glasgow

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