Prince William: stiff upper lip not so good

19 April Yesterday morning my daughter came running down stairs before breakfast saying, “Dad, Dad, on the radio

Getty Images, via The Times

Prince William is saying your book harms people!” So I wrote this piece for The Times



Stiff upper lip. There’s no better name for the essence of classical Britishness. It is a phrase used the world over to describe us, sometimes in admiration, often in exasperation. It distils and bottles a variety of abstract British traits – the ability to laugh in the face of adversity, to keep calm and carry on, to take trouble full on the chin without complaint, to maintain an even keel and a degree of pluck – that together are the glue that bound the Empire. A very current argument has it that stiff upper lips saw us through World War Two, triumphant, and so they will see us through Brexit. Rigidity below the nose (with a bit of hoisting up the chin) was, is and always will be the magic that makes Britain exceptional.

And now the heir to the throne has said that there’s “a time and a place” for stiff upper lippery, “but not at the expense of your health.” This lesson he has learnt as an air ambulance pilot, dealing at the sharp end with the epidemic of young male suicide attempts. His brother, Prince Harry, spoke out at the weekend about the years of “total chaos” in his teens, coming close to mental breakdown, implying unresolved sadness over the death of his mother, at 12. Bottling it up and not making a fuss isn’t healthy, the Princes are saying. In fact, it piles harm on that already done.

This is gob-smacking from the descendants of the men and women who invented the stiff upper lip. King Canute, who tried to hold back the tide, Richard the Lionheart, Robert the Bruce, the virgin warrior Queen Elizabeth Ist and the first King Charles, who went to the executioner’s block with a joke on his lips. A stiff upper lip is what Britons have had instead of mental health. Now we have a Prince seeing a psychotherapist (Harry said “shrink”). Is it all over?


There is a peculiar brew of myth, self-belief and delusion behind the phrase. It isn’t even a British invention. Its first recorded use was in an American magazine, the Massachusetts Spy in 1815. It probably became well known in Britain with the mid-century poem, much reprinted, “Keep a stiff upper lip!”, by the American poet Phoebe Cary. It begins:


There has something gone wrong,

My brave boy, it appears,

For I see your proud struggle

To keep back the tears.

That is right. When you cannot

Give trouble the slip,

Then bear it, still keeping

‘A stiff upper lip’.

But by the end of the nineteenth century the phrase had shaken off its transatlantic roots to become, with “Play up and play the game!” a guiding motto for Britons attempting every challenge from warfare to marriage. These simple precepts took Scott and his men to death in Antarctica, and millions into the mud and slaughter of World War One. These attitudes was never un-mocked or criticised: EM Forster used “stiff upper lippery” in The Longest Journey (1907) to savage the “well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds but undeveloped hearts” of the men who bullied him at Tonbridge School. PG Wodehouse titled a novel “Keep a stiff upper Lip, Jeeves!” When my mother used to drive me to my hated boarding school, where I started at eight years old, she’d laugh and say “Let’s see if we can keep our upper lip stiff, our chins up, and our brows set, and our best feet forward…” in the hope of staving off both our tears.

The phrase stuck because it summed up some attitudes that Britain, forging an empire, needed to crystallise into a creed. There were many of them: a favourite tale of pluck and self-control in extremis that most public school boys still remember comes from Waterloo, the bloody, final battle against Napoleon in 1815 where so many myths of English superiority were forged. The Duke of Wellington was riding through the battle with his second-in-command, Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge. The final volleys of the French artillery barrage were hurtling through the ranks. Uxbridge suddenly turned to Wellington and exclaimed, ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ To which Wellington replied, ‘By God, sir, so you have!’ Uxbridge was taken to a farmhouse where the rest of the leg was amputated, without anaesthetic. The newspapers reported that the surgeon who operated said Uxbridge never complained more than to say the knife seemed a little blunt. The leg is buried at Waterloo, with its own headstone.

Uxbridge and Wellington’s exchange and the attitudes that it embodied and inspired have lived on. Monty Python parodied phlegmatic upper-class reactions to instant amputation on the battlefield at least twice, first with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “It’s just a flesh wound” – and then again in a sketch on nineteenth-century officers fighting the Zulu Wars in The Meaning of Life. (‘If you’re playing football,’ the regimental doctor advises Lieutenant Perkins after a lion has bitten off a leg, ‘try and favour the other leg.’) It is of course very stiff upper lip to deprecate tales of heroism, especially one’s own. Three of the six Pythons went to boarding prep or public schools, as did their first director.

Mock though we did, it was at Britain’s famous private schools that these principles were used first and most productively. In the ancient institutions, and the many that were built to copy them, the old Christian belief that children must suffer if they are to become upright and useful adults became a code of practice: the magic that produced men able to go out and run an Empire. Both the Princes were put through that system, despatched at eight years old to board at Ludgrove School, and then to Eton. Schools were nicer by then than they had been in Prince Charles’s day. For a start, they could no longer beat the children for indiscipline and stupidity.

But all the same, the young princes were put into the mill whose chief grinding mechanism had always been depriving the young of what psychologists call “healthy attachment”, of the safety of home and the love of those who know them best. At boarding school normal feelings can become something dangerous, the understandable sense of bereavement that is homesickness becomes an illness to get over bravely. This produces the peculiar British upper class type we all know – empire builder and business leader, perhaps, supremely self-confident but often far from emotionally whole.

If the idea that you would put children eight or younger through this process sounds ridiculous – and to most people not from Britain it does, utterly – consider just how powerful the instinct is. Prince Charles loathed his boarding schools, where he was beaten and bullied, and Diana opposed sending the boys so young. But they did it. Part of the stiff upper lip principle is denial of pain – and sending your children to do the same must be the ultimate expression of the belief that the hurt never did you any harm. Half of all the 75,000 children at boarding school today have parents who went through them.

At Eton the polishing happened – to the Princes and to me, though I only lasted there three years. Researching my book I asked one Old Etonian, the writer and anecdotalist John Julius Norwich, if he had an anecdote that summed up the spirit of the place. He told me this, from the late 1930s: “A boy committed suicide, and the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’

There is a perfection in this awful story, as one of its type (usually only ex-public school children laugh at it). Ormsby-Gore (who became, as Lord Harlech, a well-known politician and diplomat) was joking, but the joke is complex: he is mocking a certain sort of British phlegm that denies mental weakness, or at least can’t be bothered to explain it. So Ormsby-Gore is laughing at himself and his lack of empathy and insight – but lacking such things is not seen as a hindrance. It may well be a positive when faced with life’s trials. And besides, the food was certainly awful and it is always fun to see how far you can push the housemaster. Humour, at its driest and most self-aware, marches alongside the stiffest of upper lips.

Most Britons of the class that runs things are still, even today, ambivalent about stiff upper lip. If we were or are a great nation, the belief in the lip and its workings certainly played a part. Fortitude, imperturbablilty, moral conviction – they have their time and place in the modern world, as Prince William might have said. But core to the stiff upper lip principle is not making a fuss. So speaking up and denying the urge to keep feelings under wraps is anathema to it. Openness is key to a healthy person and a healthy Britain, and if that’s what Prince William and Prince Harry are advocating, then that is truly revolutionary. We shall wait and see if William and Kate send George to boarding school.

Original article in The Times

Flogging vice out, virtue in

Douglas Hodge (centre) as the predatory schoolmaster Captain Grimes in the BBC’s Decline and Fall: the first comedy paedophile in English literature

Violence, cruelty and sexual confusion are as much a part of boarding school literature as japes, cricket and a cast of swots, cads and cowards. Alex Renton traces a troubled genre from Rudyard Kipling to JK Rowling

8 April 2017, The Guardian (this is an amended version of the original article, here)

“Michael was ordered to take down his trousers and kneel on the Headmaster’s sofa with the top half of his body hanging over one end of the sofa (sic). The great man then gave him one terrific crack. After that there was a pause. The cane was put down and the Headmaster began filling his pipe from a tin of tobacco. He also started to lecture the kneeling boy about sin and wrongdoing. Soon, the cane was picked up again and a second tremendous crack was administered upon the trembling buttocks. Then the pipe-filling business and the lecture went on for maybe thirty seconds. Then came the third crack of the cane… At the end of it all, a basin, a sponge and a small clean towel were produced by the Headmaster, and the victim was told to wash away the blood before pulling up his trousers.”

The writer is Roald Dahl, on his school, Repton, in the early 1930s. Apart from one detail, it’s run-of-the-mill, one in a stack of boarding school stories from the 19th and 20th centuries that tell quite blithely of acts of extraordinary violence and psychological cruelty. These were as traditional an element of the curriculum for the privileged child as were fagging, rugby, chapel and Latin. What stands out is that the “great man” was a clergyman named Geoffrey Fisher, soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dahl’s story (which may have confused Fisher with another man) is told in his autobiography, Boy. It came to mind recently when a Channel 4 documentary outed another hard-flogging Christian, a former QC called John Smyth. He would select boys, some future bishops among them, at Winchester College’s Christian summer camp. He whipped them till they bled, too. Smyth – and Fisher – were nothing unusual in a long parade of moralising, high-placed Anglicans who brutalised and assaulted the children of the ruling class. It was a job that needed doing: “conscientiously whipping virtue in and vice out,” as the critic Cuthbert Worsley, a master at Marlborough College in the 1930s, put it.

Archibald Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1868 until his death in 1882, “sobbed in a religious passion” as he birched the boys in his charge at Rugby. Edward Benson, a favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, succeeded Tait to the archbishopric: he was another cane-happy head at Rugby and Wellington schools. These were high-minded men: while at Wellington, Benson became so worried about outbreaks of bed-hopping among the boys that he installed cubicles in the dormitories and had their partitions crowned with tangles of wire.

Savage discipline, sexual confusion and formalised bullying are so common in the schooldays memoirs of the British elite that you have to conclude that parents wanted their children to experience these things. To most of the class that used them, the private schools were factories that would reliably produce men and women who would to run Britain, its politics, business, and culture. Boarding school was a proven good investment. So thousands of men and women who had suffered awfully, by their own admission, sent their children off for just the same.

At St George’s School, Ascot the eight year old Winston Churchill was whipped hard for damaging the head-master’s hat and for taking sugar from a pantry. ‘Flogging with the birch in accordance with the Eton fashion was a great feature of the curriculum,’ he wrote in My Early Life. Two or three times a month the whole school was gathered to listen to the screams of offenders being ‘flogged until they bled freely’. Churchill’s headmaster was another clergyman, the Reverend Henry Sneyd-Kynnersley. He is said to have died, aged just thirty-eight, while in action against one of his charges . Another St George’s old boy, the artist Roger Fry, wrote in his private diaries of these “solemn rituals”; Virginia Woolf, Fry’s first biographer, censored the details of both Fry’s and Sneyd-Kynnersley’s sexual arousal during the ceremony.

Churchill duly sent his boy Randolph off to board at nine; though when he found out that a master at Sandroyd School had been taking the child into his room to “manipulate his organ”, he drove straight to the school and ensured the man was sacked. That was unusual. From the hundreds of accounts sent to me of predation by teachers most children who made such complaints were ignored – or punished for lying.

What most of the published memoirs, from Churchill’s to Christopher Hitchens’ and a host of others, share most obviously is their tone: wry, tolerant of predators and floggers, and rather proud. It didn’t do to make a fuss or – more important – betray the caste. There are few men or women who went through the boarding school system who were prepared to wholly deny the benefits of the experience, at least before the later 20th century.  George Orwell and his schoolmate Cyril Connolly had a go, using – and in Orwell’s case, fictionalising – the baroque horrors of their South Coast prep school, St Cyprian’s.

In the Thirties, a perception grew that Britain’s social divides, and the peculiar psychology of its ruling class, might possibly owe something to the uniquely bizarre education the elite underwent. Fascism became a metaphor for the schools, at least among leftish intellectuals. In 1934 the 29-year old Graham Greene gathered a team of young writers including WH Auden, Antonia White and Anthony Powell to assault the noble edifices that had raised them (HE Bates is also there, to give the view from Kettering Grammar School). The dominant tone is anger. Auden dubs the teachers at Gresham’s in Norfolk, “lifeless prunes and spiritual vampires”. Another essayist in Greene’s The Old School, the novelist Elizabeth Arnot Robertson:  “Run about, girls, like boys, and then you won’t have to think of them.” Her essay, “The Potting Shed of the English Rose, is a portrait of a prison-factory designed to machine the girls into spiritual clones and reliable spouses for rulers. She tried to rebel, was stamped down, and survived her time dreaming of the future: “How exquisitely delightful it would be to be an adult! And it is…”

There are not many negative accounts of the traditional boarding schools by women. That may be in part because physical violence was less common, though the emotional abuse and neglect they encountered could be just as damaging. The women’s institutions were founded later – there were only five “public” schools for girls by the end of the 19th century, all of them quite deliberately aping the boys’ ones.  But in the late 1960s 150,000 British children were boarding, about a third of them female. By then the girls’ schools had their own literature: the addictive, unambivalent stories of japes, hockey and simple social quandaries turned out by Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton. Like JK Rowling, Blyton did not board at her schools and Brazil only did in her late teens. The only anti-boarding school novel by a woman before the 1970s I know of is Frost in May (1933), Antonia White’s fictionalised account of her rigid Catholic convent school, Woldingham. There sexuality was so feared that the girls were not permitted to see their own bodies: baths were taken in tents made of calico.

Novelists were telling of the dark and brutal times to be had at boarding school much earlier than the essay-writers. Dickens sent Nicholas Nickleby to Dotheboys Hall and Charlotte Bronte put the orphan Jane Eyre into Lowood Institute: at both of them hypocritical, grasping adults set out to break the children, physically and spiritually. In 1888 Rudyard Kipling published a heart-rending short story about little children despatched – as he was, at five years old  – from the colonies into the hands of uncaring adults back in Britain. Ten years later, he invented a school fiction sub-genre, with the rebellious schoolchild as hero, battling dictatorial and stupid adult teachers: Stalky and Co leads to the stories of Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter, to Molesworth and Down With Skool and finally to Harry Potter. The schoolmaster-baiting pranks of Stalky and his friends reappear again and again in subsequent English fiction – not least in British officers in WW2 POW camps, chirpily fooling dim German guards.

Having set The Longest Journey (1907) around his snobbish, militaristic school Tonbridge – it is called Sawston in the novel – EM Forster delivered the harshest of all one-liners about the product of the British public school. They go out into the world, he wrote in 1927, “with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts.”  But of course Forster did not bring down the schools. More kept opening. To most Britons possession of limited knowledge and not too much emotional intelligence must have seemed a sensible preparation for joining the club that ran the British world. Anti-intellectualism was prized. “They say that Eton taught us nothing,” crowed the First World War general Sir Herbert Plumer at a dinner of the school’s old boys’ society in 1916. “But I must say they taught it very well.”

Traditional boarding school, with its cricket-field triumphs and the practical jokes, the floggings and the bullies, were by the 1890s the staple of a literary genre with an audience far beyond the class that used them, or even the ones that aspired to them. The simple cast of honest sportsmen, swots and of cowards, cads, and bullies presented by Tom Hughes in Tom Brown’s School Days marched on through hundreds of novels for children and in comics; if you read accounts of British foreign policy before and after the Second World War it seems as though the schoolyard precepts and stock characters of the schooldays novel have peopled the world. School and sport provided metaphors for proper Britishness. “Play up and play the game!” – the refrain of Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem immensely popular poem Vitai Lampada – was a guiding motto for everything from war to marriage.

And it was clear that a stiff upper lip, loyalty to the team and a smile at adversity were the attributes most useful in life – and you obtained these at the right schools. Or even the worst ones. Evelyn Waugh portrayed a shambolic prep school in his first novel, modelled on one at which he had taught. Decline and Fall features fiction’s first account of another traditional cast-member of the boarding school drama, the predatory paedophile Captain Grimes. His actual crime is only hinted at in the novel; the BBC’s rollicking TV adaptation is much more open about the “peg-legged pederast”. But the sophisticated reader would have had no problem understanding what Grimes did – and had been sacked from the army and many boarding schools for doing. Grimes remains acclaimed as one of the century’s greatest comic creations. In his diaries Waugh writes with loving admiration of Grimes’s original,the disgraced former army officer WB “Dick” Young. A serial molester of small boys, certainly: but a resourceful and witty man of “shining candour”, and they remained friends until Decline and Fall was published. Later Young, by way of revenge, wrote a school novel in which Waugh was the paedophile teacher.

And so to Hogwarts. With all its Gothic filigree, this most exclusive college looks very like the 19th century Fettes School and Arundel College: Harry Potter location fees have been a windfall for many fading institutions. The series has the archetypes – sinister teachers and over-friendly ones, sporty heroes and school bullies. The books don’t – and it seems a missed opportunity – have any flogging in them. But they have the other key elements, arcane ritualistic the training to join an elite.

Harry and his friends may well have been the best advert for private boarding schools since the Duke of Wellington boasted that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It could be coincidence, but the 30-year decline in boarding school numbers came to an end in 2000, just as the third Harry Potter novel was published. Since then, though full-boarding fees are now around £35,000 per annum, the pupil count has been stable at 70,000, a third of them the children of foreign wealthy. Later this month, when the Easter holidays end, more than 4,000 children under 10 years old will say goodbye to their families, off to where there is the promise of adventure, but not love. Some of them – as one mother, “forced” by her daughter to allow her to board, told me – will pack Harry Potter wands too. Your heart breaks for them still.

Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson – buy it here 

This is a longer version of the original article published in the Guardian on 8th April 2017.