On Spanking

Christopher Hitchens

  • A Guide to the Correction of Young Gentlemen or, The Successful Administration of Physical Discipline to Males, by Females by a Lady, with illustrations by a Former Pupil
    Delectus, 140 pp, £19.95, August 1994, ISBN 1 897767 05 6

Sometime in the late autumn of 1977, I went to a book party that was held in the Rosebery Room of the House of Lords. Why I went I can’t think – the volume was some piece of unreadable bufferdom extruded by Lord Butler, who as ‘Rab’ had never in his life done anything to live down the Greek Street sobriquet ‘flabby-faced old coward’. He himself was vaguely present, moving about the carpet like a terrible tortoise. A sprinkling of hacks and politicos completed the scene, which was identical to a score of similar gatherings except in point of its grand setting. And then there was a sort of sensation at the door and in came Margaret Thatcher. Rab’s shell crackled and contracted a little, as he tried to look flattered by the attention of his new leader: she whose whole purpose it was to cram Butskellism as harshly as possible into the WPB of history.

And I? Reader, I was bewitched. A dull pre-dinner drink-stop had been entirely transformed. You may have forgotten, but the regnant left-liberal idiocy of the period had it that Thatcher was a shrill, suburban and narrow housewife, the outcome of a spasm of folly among the Tory back-benchers. Unsound, unelectable, extreme ... shouldn’t be long now before the voters remind us that politics, as Rab had once so originally said, is the art of the possible. Having observed her arresting qualities of domination at the previous Conservative Party Conference, I had been ridiculed for writing, in the New Statesman, that she was a great fanged and clawed feline, replete with sex and spite, her tawny whiskers flecked with cream past, cream present and cream to come (I exaggerate only slightly). And I wondered to myself. Had she read my paragraph? Surely, if you’re leader of the Tory Party and the (then) leading journal of socialist opinion says that you’re a bit of a bombshell, you get to hear about it? Would she recall the byline? Peregrine Worsthorne sportingly offered to introduce us. I eased my way over to her side. Worsthorne did his stuff, saying that he and I had just returned from a most interesting trip to Rhodesia. And here also was a good test, because Thatcher had attacked the two-party consensus on the Smith-Muzorewa deal, suggesting that if elected she would lift sanctions on Salisbury.

At once we were in an argument. Of Joshua Nkomo I remember her saying: ‘I think Joshua is absolutely sweet.’ That was the least of our disagreements. On one point of fact, too abstruse to detail here, I was right (as it happens) and she was wrong. But she would not concede this and so, rather than be a bore, I gave her the point and made a slight bow of acknowledgment. She pierced me with a glance. ‘Bow lower,’ she commanded. With what I thought was an insouciant look, I bowed a little lower. ‘No, no – much lower!’ A silence had fallen over our group. I stooped lower, with an odd sense of having lost all independent volition. Having arranged matters to her entire satisfaction, she produced from behind her back a rolled-up Parliamentary order-paper and struck – no, she thwacked – me on the behind. I reattained the perpendicular with some difficulty. ‘Naughty boy,’ she sang out over her shoulder as she flounced away. Nothing that happened to the country in the next dozen years surprised me in the least.

Actually, I was surprised by a few things. (After all, within a year or so of being elected she had steered Zimbabwe to independence under an elected majority government, something that no Labour government had summoned the nerve to do in more than a decade of dithering and funk.) But whenever I read of the humiliation of some over-mighty cabinet colleague – Geoffrey Howe, say, or Jim Prior or John Moore or Francis Pym – I could picture the scene only too well:

I can do no better at this stage than describe my own punishment chamber, which I call the Lady Chapel.

   This is not blasphemy on my part. It is a chapel to the Lady (the Lady I serve) in her aspect as Aphrodite Philomastrix. It is a room dedicated to the use of the birch-rod so closely associated with her, the rod she plucked from the air with which to chastise her son, and so bestowed on human kind another primary tool – like Fire – with which to master our destiny.

The introduction to this reprinted classic informs us that it was first privately published in 1924, seized by the zealous constabulary in the autumn of that year, and made the subject of a show trial with Mr Justice Ticehurst, later Lord Justice Woodhelves, presiding. All known copies were sentenced to be burned, and the defendant printers awarded stiff and condign prison terms. We now believe that the author of the supple and muscular prose instanced above was Alice Kerr-Sutherland, a no-nonsense governess who in the early years of the century had abandoned her errant but legitimate little charges to pursue the high road of madamhood. Her flagellation brothel in St James’s was a place of resort for the gentry and nobility and, before the walls of Holloway jail closed around his be-furred Venus, it was to Alice that George, Marquis of Milford Haven and elder brother of Mountbatten, was in thrall.

The absorbing fact about this gruellingly detailed and thorough manual is its utter want of anything that might be called prurience. Even the illustrations (lovingly etched by ‘A Former Pupil’) are innocuous to a degree; mere putti rendered in a sort of arch Pre-Raphaelite pastiche and consisting of sexless buttocks and downcast eyes. The point of all the exercises, inflictions and routines here described is very simple – to show who is boss:

There being a natural level of formality in a caning, this tone should be maintained both before and after the punishment proper, wherever it is inflicted and under whatever conditions of dress. At the very least I make a caned offender write an imposition. On occasions – when the trousers have been taken down for example – I send him shuffling to the corner to further shame and isolation, with his garments about his ankles and his hands on his head.

As the editors so sapiently remark, in an introduction that bears all the marks of some hard thinking: ‘The Mother Country version of the Discipline oeuvre is resonant with memories from school and home: the swishy cane, the maternal slipper, the smell of chalk-dust and fear, bending over, bare bottoms, and so on.’ Attempting to write about the subliminal character and appeal of Thatcherism, I would make little references to the enduring persistence of this trope (concentrated among, but not confined to, the public-school classes). I would make reference to Geoffrey Howe, quivering in the headmistress’s study. To satirise a famous editorial in the old Daily Telegraph, headed ‘The Smack of Firm Government’, I penned a New Statesman editorial entitled ‘The Smack of a Firm Governess’. And there was ‘sado-monetarist’ and all the rest of it. People would smile as if one was, of course, joking. But it was noticeable all the same that the joke was one that few people failed to get. If I were Geoffrey Howe, leafing through this guide, I wonder how I would feel on confronting this sentence: ‘I am a firm believer in punishing before witnesses whenever the behaviour warrants it, since nothing is more shaming to a big chap than to have his trousers taken down and his bottom whipped in public.’

Banned and burned as it may have been, this book must have enjoyed something of a secret life among clubmen, martinets and discipline-fanciers. I noticed that, in her chapter thoughtfully entitled ‘The Birch’, and exhaustively and profusely illustrated with different styles, intensities and postures, Ms Kerr-Sutherland had this to say about judicial birching, of the kind that used to be so popular in British magistrates’ courts:

At present a judicial birching is inflicted in private by policemen. One (or more) holds down the boy across a table, while another officer applies the bitch ... I have long believed that delinquent boys, sentenced to be whipped, should receive their punishment in public, immediately, and at the hands of a strong woman police constable. [Emphasis in original].

I knew that I had read this, or something like it, before. On your behalf, gentle reader, I went back to Ian Gibson’s classic study The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After. In a riotous House of Commons debate on the cat and the birch in February 1953, there was the following intervention from Captain C. Waterhouse, Conservative Member for Leicester South-East and later a leader of the Suez Group – ancestor of the Monday Club and thus indirect progenitor of one strand of Thatcherism: ‘We should allow magistrates if necessary to order the cane or to send the culprits back to school to be caned. If a policeman should be too strong, put a stout policewoman on the job.’ Gibson comments that he has seen flagellant porn mags in which this wish is gratified, but the actual prompt may well have come to the gallant Captain from the riveting work under review.

Gibson also detailed the work, around that very Parliamentary debate, of Eric A. Wildman and his National Society for the Retention of Corporal Punishment. Wildman’s own illiterate seminal work, entitled Juvenile Justice, proclaimed the following:

We are doing everything in our power, but so much depends upon the support we can command. With us is allied the Corpun Educational Organisation which exists to provide teachers, educational authorities and parents with carefully selected and manufactured instruments of correction. Already there are 10,000 ‘satisfied customers’. Corpun also runs a unique literary service publishing the personal experiences of those entrusted with the care of the young of administering corporal correction and providing them with a media for the frank expression of opinion.

Corpun’s ‘unique literary service’ actually consisted of pamphlets, often with introductions by eager clergymen, entitled Girl’s Beating: Punishment Postures, which landed him in court, despite his claim to be upholding ‘old-fashioned discipline’. (Another interesting literary footprint occurs to me here. The only other place I have seen the word ‘corpun’ in print is in the Letters of Philip Larkin. As a neologism, it is as ugly as any one could contrive, but as a salacious expression and – apparently – as a piece of authentic Englishry, it was very close to his core.)

The key phrase in Captain Waterhouse’s distraught peroration above is surely the one in which he calls for the victims to be sent ‘back to school to be caned’. In the great rolling growl that used to sweep Tory Party Conferences at any mention of the birch, there could be detected a thwarted yearning to have everybody under control again: back in school, with its weird hierarchy of privileges and sufferings; back in the ranks of the regiment where a good colour-sergeant could keep them in order; back in the workhouse and under the whip of the beadle. If this means a population that is somewhat infantilised and humiliated, well how else can you expect to get people to wait in the rain to see a royal princess break a bottle of cider over the bows of a nuclear submarine? And be glad, nay proud, to get soaked if she were late (‘Gawd bless yer, mam!’ as the Ealing Studios used to put it). Alice Kerr-Sutherland had a keen instinct here. ‘From time to time throughout this Guide I have referred, obliquely, to “infantile punishments”. What are these? Briefly, they are punishments designed to force an apparent reversion to infancy – babyhood – on the part of the culprit.’ As she states, in her character-building fashion,

oddly enough – or perhaps not oddly at all – I have found over the years that the type of offender most likely to benefit from such an ordeal is also the type most likely to accept it with humility. (Often these are the artistic or musical cases.) To them I promise that the credit they gain from submitting with courage to the flogging, far outweighs that which they lose from being petticoated and birched in public – unlikely though it might seem at the time. I also point out that they will be the centre of attention in a very old and beautiful ceremony. For some reason, this often appears to carry considerable weight.

One can imagine. And one either understands what la Kerr-Sutherland is driving at, or one does not. It might seem childish to look down from the gallery in the House of Commons, and play the old game of guessing which law-and-order and family-values chap is sitting on the green leather bench secretly wearing rubber knickers, or nappies, or lace-trimmed split-crotch lingerie under his pinstripes. But only a political Establishment suffering acutely from arrested development could make the game so well worth playing, and so rich in disclosure and reward.

(Caricatures of the English vice as being also a Tory vice may be about to show symptoms of redundancy. In the old days, men who wanted to be caned or spanked, by women or men, seemed to coalesce around Conservative Party embarrassments. There was the testimony of the gorgeous, pouting Vicki Barrett at the Profumo/Ward hearings, about her five-quid-a-stroke sessions of plying the rattan. More recently, there was of course the flagellatrice who had managed to rent herself space in Norman Lamont’s capacious, not to say elastic, basement. However, I note that the winsome Tony Blair, who is not about to be outdone on any sector of the law-and-order front, has recently stood up before the whole school and bared his reminiscences. On a recent edition of Panorama, he told a pro-corpun couple he met on some stricken doorstep in Southampton that: ‘I’m actually someone who received the cane when I was in school. It probably did me no harm.’ He drew instant endorsement from Sir Rhodes Boyson, the Wackford-whiskered fallabout who used to speak for the Tories on education. Sir Rhodes, if one can call him that with a straight face, also testified that caning had done him no harm. Why do people invariably make this claim; usually before anyone has asked them? Anyway, Blair’s standard disclosure is interesting chiefly because for the first time in history the Labour Party is led by a public school boy while the Tory Party is not. We had already guessed, I fancy, that on all painful questions he was better at taking it than dishing it out.)

In the days when those who lusted for the private lash also controlled the Lord Chamberlain’s theatre censorship office, so as to deny any desublimated sexual portrayals to the rest of us, Laurence Olivier wrote a magnificent essay which demonstrated that he had, from early youth, grasped by instinct what lay behind the beating business. He was writing in defence of Edward Bond’s censored play Saved:

The first time a schoolmaster ordered me to take my trousers down I knew it was not from any doubt that he could punish me efficiently enough with them up. The theatre is concerned, whether in the deepest tragedy or the lightest comedy, with the teaching of the human heart the knowledge of itself, and sometimes, when it is necessary, with the study, understanding and recognition of that most dreaded and dangerous eccentricity in the human design, the tripartite conspiracy between the sexual, the excretory and the cruel.

It is at the precise apex of this triangle (or if you insist, at all three of its precise apexes) that Kerr-Sutherland operates. It is the meticulous codification and ritual of each castigation that makes such a brisk pamphlet seem many times longer than it actually is. Here, she demonstrates how to break and reset the armature of a living personality:

To put it bluntly, after bowel movements all human beings must thoroughly clean themselves – there is no need to go into details; we all know what I am saying. However, some boys, either because of laziness or because they have not been properly trained when they were very small, are – let us say – lax in this matter. The evidence for this can be found by an ad hoc inspection ... Any resistance should be punished by smacking, public scrubbing, and rubber knickers or napkins until further notice.

Any resistance. Oh Matron ... The desired end-result, and the one that is depressingly often achieved, is a kind of fawning gratitude. ‘Never did me any harm ... schools these days no idea of discipline ... short sharp shock the only answer.’ Kerr-Sutherland probably made no idle boast when, after detailing her dirty underwear programme (and completing Olivier’s triptych by describing her lavishly sadistic treatment for the maximum offence of self-abuse) she closed on this note: ‘Time and again a former pupil comes to see me, to reminisce or perhaps for another purpose. Boys who have passed through my hands have gone on to win the highest awards their country can bestow, for gallantry, self-sacrifice and leadership – I do not need to say any more.’

She didn’t need to say any more because she and her clientele imagined that they shared an exciting secret. The labour of exposing the secret is well worthwhile, because it reminds us, when the hearty cry of ‘Back to Basics’ is heard, of the occluded roots of this inverted nostalgia. It shows us precisely what the fuck it’s all about, or about what fuck it all is.