19 Feb 2018 I fronted an ITV documentary Boarding schools: the secret shame – Exposure. It revisited Stiff Upper Lip and featured new interviews and some excellent research into abuse and cover-up at a number of celebrated schools. Lots of coverage, and the Daily Telegraph gave it a good review. But I really cannot encourage anyone to read the Daily Telegraph, so there’s no link here.
18 Feb 2018 I wrote a long piece in the Sunday Times about cover-up and collusion in boarding school abuse by parents and teachers.
25 May A review in The Tablet, by Nicholas Tucker – “searing”, he says.
20 May Miranda Green reviews in the Financial Times – “a horrible read”…! Nevertheless, “Renton deserves praise and attention for disturbing our equanimity about this tradition.”
18 May “Fascinating”, says Ian Irvine in Prospect.
15 May Ian Thomson in the New Statesman.
2 May ‘I saw my teacher convicted of child abuse. But why won’t the courts let the full story be told?’ Wrote a piece for the New Statesman about the misuse of gagging orders in institutional sex abuse proceedings.
27 April “Is boarding school cruel?” A debate in The Spectator, between me and Lara Prendergast
23 April “A book that asks powerful questions parents can’t ignore” – review in Country Life magazine by James Fergusson.
22 April “[Ex-boarders] form our governments and judiciary, and by extension how they think affects how we all live…” Annie Brown in the Daily Record.
19 April My comment piece in The Times. Stiff upper lip was what posh Britons had instead of mental health. If Prince William is questioning the code, that’s revolutionary. Here.
16 April Rupert Christiansen in The Sunday Telegraph gives the book four stars – “Shocking, gripping and sobering… impassioned, candid and thoroughly researched – worthy to stand alongside classic explorations of the subject by Royston Lambert and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy”. No online review.
The Independent re-runs the Evening Standard’s review – “gruelling and gripping”.
15 April Sam Leith’s review in the Guardian print edition:
A great depth of reading and thinking here, and the whole thing thrums, right at the back of it, with a contagious sadness; a contagious anger; a contagious grief.
14 April 2017 “Extremely valuable”: Stiff Upper Lip is Book of the Week in the Daily Mail. But the review is a sad and conflicted thing, in which the author, John Preston, outs himself as a victim of childhood sexual abuse at school and then pooh-poohs the idea of taking that seriously. Interesting, the ex-boarding school reviewers who demand more humour with their child abuse.
This is the free world’s nastiest newspaper, of course, so no link to it here. Which is really gonna bug Jonathan Rothermere.
13 April 2017 Radio interview, Newstalk FM Ireland with George Hook: “Stiff Upper Lip kept me absolutely enthralled… Even if you never went near a public school, the book is a phenomenal read: it kept me up all night.” (full recording here, 15 mins)
And a thoughtful, painful discussion on BBC Radio Scotland with Stephen Jardine
12 April 2017 Sam Leith published a review in The Guardian
Renton mixes memoir and anecdote with deeply researched history… Here is a subject nobody has really attacked, in this way, for a long time. And if it’s possible that an entire ruling class has been institutionally damaged for generations by these schools, that’s a big thing. One of the cliches I deride in publishers’ press releases is that something is “a brave and necessary book”. Now I eat crow. For all its faults, this is a brave and necessary book.
11 April 2017: C4 News and Jon Snow broadcast an interview with me and then a debate with psychoanalyst and author Joy Schaverien and Independent Schools Council’s Julie Robinson about the risks and advantages of boarding schools.
9 April 2017 “It was Pederasty Towers…” Rachel Johnson on our mutual school, Ashdown House. Thoughtful piece on the book, the peculiar education of the British elite and the fall-out from that in the Sydney Morning Herald – here.
9 April 2017 Reviews in The Observer, Mail on Sunday, The Sunday Times
By the end of this thoughtful and sensitive indictment of one of the cornerstones of the British establishment, it’s very hard to conclude anything except that generations of children have been emotionally damaged on a truly shocking scale. (Andrew Anthony, The Observer)
6 April 2017 London Evening Standard
Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class by Alex Renton – review
There’s no escaping the gruelling and gripping sense of personal catharsis, says William Moore
It’s hard to feel sorry for Old Etonians, isn’t it? Lord Robert Cecil, the third Marquess of Salisbury, detested his time at the school, calling it “an existence among devils”, and had to leave because of intense bullying. Still, goes the popular argument, he served three terms as Prime Minister, so how bad could it have been?
It’s not just bad, it’s traumatic, argues journalist Alex Renton. He was a boarder in the Seventies from the age of eight to 18, first at Ashdown House, a prep school in East Sussex, and then at Eton. He recalls lying in his dormitory with a pillow over his face to stifle tears of homesickness, since any noise after lights out would trigger a beating from the older boys, sometimes with belt buckles. He was also the victim of sexual abuse from four different teachers, three at his prep school and one at Eton.
Since 2013 Renton has collected data about boarding school abuse. From 800 or so first-hand accounts he found 250 allegations that constituted criminal sexual assault with the highest number of cases from the Seventies. He estimates that “at least a quarter of the schools of the privileged had harboured adult sexual abusers”, and perhaps many more. The simple truth, he says, is that “run-of-the-mill non-violent paedophilia” did not get noticed.
3 April 2017 The Times
Confronting past abuse is hard but essential
Inquiries can acknowledge the personal damage done and establish that society has changed
For Lady Smith, the judge heading Scotland’s child abuse inquiry, the job just got a great deal harder. Alex Renton’s book on abuse in the public school system, published this week, and serialised in The Times, is a difficult read. Not just because it lifts the lid on the way that, for generations, predatory teachers almost routinely took advantage of pupils in their care, but the fact that so little was done to prevent them. No one who has been to boarding school — I include myself — was unaware of it. We joked about it, gossiped about it, but rarely if ever reported it.
The hard bit, for Lady Smith, is reconciling reports of historical sex abuse today with how normal it was considered then. The word abuse was never used. The activities it covered may have been recognised but they were swept under the carpet. It might have been well known throughout the school that such-and-such a maths teacher was best avoided in the dormitory, or that the changing room was a no-go area if a certain staff member was in charge — but the idea of taking it up with the headmaster or your parents was unthinkable.
Mostly we never spoke about it, and if we did, it was to shrug shoulders
Actually, that is a slight exaggeration. I do remember, at my Scottish prep school, going to see the head, along with a distressed fellow-pupil who had been “interfered with” in the dark room; the teacher involved took “leave of absence”. But that was rare. Mostly we never spoke about it, and if we did, it was in that shoulder-shrugging way that suggested it was something you just got on with. Stiff Upper Lip is the title of Renton’s book, and that was the attitude most of us adopted. “Keep calm and carry on” was the mantra of that generation.
What we now know, of course, is that for many vulnerable children, carrying on was not an option. Their lives were ruined, their emotional development stunted. Worse, some of them became themselves abusers. In Renton’s book, a teacher, sent to prison for preying on young boys, recounts his own experiences, and defends himself by saying that, having participated in sexual activities as a pupil, he convinced himself it was acceptable to do the same to children in his charge.
The education establishment in those days was, if not complicit, at least dismissive. Partly, of course, because any exposure to scandal meant bringing the school into disrepute, but partly too because it did not share today’s sense of shock. In an era when corporal punishment was part of normal schooling, the notion of a teacher indulging in sexual activity with a child may not have seemed so bad.
Anyone who went to a Scottish school in those days remembers the strap — that deadly instrument of punishment, with its leather thongs and its cutting edge — and at my primary school in Easter Ross, we suspected that the grizzled headmaster who summoned us into his study and belted us so regularly, actually enjoyed it. We grew up with comics which had teachers, armed with canes, laying into Dennis the Menace or Biffo the Bear. Billy Bunter, caught with cake at Greyfriars School, yelled “Yaroo!” as he was given six of the best, and most of his readers thought he deserved it. At my own public school in England, they still had “birching” — a form of punishment which actually drew blood. What today would be described as intolerable abuse, was then — and it is only a generation ago — routine.
Hardly surprising, then, that a teacher caught fondling a pupil under the sheets in the dormitory was not necessarily given the summary dismissal he deserved.
It was Jimmy Savile and the Roman Catholic Church which finally brought home the way that the system itself was to blame, and that, for some, the outcome was a lifetime of suffering. The way that hospitals and care homes allowed Savile to patrol their corridors, despite the rumours that surrounded him, showed how far authority was prepared to turn a blind eye; and the fact that successive Catholic bishops and archbishops chose to deal gently with serial abusing priests was a running scandal.
It was Jimmy Savile and the Roman Catholic Church which finally brought home the way that the system itself was to blame
For those, then, who question the whole process which has given rise to inquiries into historical sex abuse; who wonder whether memories of events as long as 30 or 40 years ago can possibly be relied on; or who point to the way that allegations can always be twisted — as revenge or in self-defence — this, then, is the justification. By confronting the past, we are recognising the personal damage that was caused along the way, and holding our own values to account. The latest such allegations concerning the Queen Victoria School in Dunblane are all of 40 years old, but they need investigation just as much as more recent events.
Lady Smith’s inquiry — and that of Alexis Jay in England — is charged with examining the extent to which institutions with legal responsibility for protecting children failed in that duty, and to find out how far systems have been put in place to ensure the abuse does not happen again.
It’s a tall order. You cannot overnight put in place a system that guarantees to prevent abuses that stem from human nature, and you cannot staunch wounds that go so deep they can never entirely be healed. You can, however, establish that society has changed, and that behaviour which was once tolerated is now not only unacceptable, but abhorred.
1 April 2017 The Times
4 December 2016 for The Observer
“Cover-up is a British institutional tradition”
(Excerpt) Breaking the silence is immensely powerful and it is good medicine. But speaking up is hard. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has data that suggests one out of three people abused as a child has not disclosed the abuse and that the average victim who does waits nearly eight years to do so. Many of the men coming forward now, encouraged by the testimony of ex-footballer Andy Woodward, had never spoken before of the events when they were children.
In the past couple of years I have read or heard the accounts of more than 700 men and women sexually and emotionally abused as children in boarding schools, state-run and private. They came to me after I wrote in the Observer of the abuse at my own, Ashdown House. The stories are the grimmest reading, but what is heartening is that for so many people the simple act of speaking up is hugely helpful.