Paul Foot

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.

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[*] The Land of Lost Content: The Biography of Anthony Chenevix-Trench by Mark Peel (Pentland, 249 pp., £16.99, 25 July, 1 85821 400 9),