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A Very Private School by Charles Spencer – a history of violence

A Very Private School by Charles Spencer – a history of violence

In 1972, at the Aidwell Hall School in Northamptonshire, the main perpetrator of abuse was the headmaster, Jack Porch. He kept two canes in his office, named the Flick and the Switch, and would patrol the dormitories at night in search of students talking. Those who were caught would be punished by being pulled over his knee and hit with a slipper. Another abuser was Mr. Maude, who would force boys to swim even if they were unable to do so. One student was even pulled out of the pool and needed to be given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Charles Spencer was beaten with a cricket boot by Mr. Maude, causing the metal spikes to puncture his skin. Additionally, there was a large teacher who would hit Spencer on the head with his signet ring, leaving invisible traces of blood in the boy’s thick red hair.

“At the tender age of eight, Spencer was enrolled in a private boarding school where he endured traumatic experiences that have had lasting effects. It has taken years of therapy for him to come to terms with the damage caused. His writing about these events carries a passionate tone. Relevant childhood quotes from Hilary Mantel, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and others support his argument. What is most significant is that he has also interviewed numerous fellow students from Maidwell, all of whom carry scars from their time at this elite institution run by abusive and predatory staff.”

Spencer should have refrained from going there. He had already experienced being abandoned as an infant when his mother disappeared for six months and his parents divorced. However, his older sisters, including Diana, were attending boarding school at the time. It was common for parents of his social class to hire strangers in unregulated areas to care for their children, and this practice continues today. Before going, Spencer had a recurring dream about a pack of wolves. When he arrived at Maidwell, he was just as scared. The senior student assigned to watch over him refused to help, saying, “You’re on your own.”

When around parents, Porch appeared friendly and charming, but once they were gone, he would become cold and intimidating. He would call for boys at night to confess or receive “extra lessons,” and any mistakes or misbehavior would result in a spanking. Porch also took pleasure in touching freshly injured bare bottoms, causing the victim’s cotton underwear to stick to their dried blood.

The example of thuggery was passed down, through daily sessions of “ragging” in which students were encouraged to “burn off energy” in an aggressive free-for-all , and a thriving knife culture, with every boy expected to have his own sheath knife (Spencer had a commando dagger with a seven-inch blade). Along with the fighting there was fat-shaming and mockery of any boy judged to be a “palooka” or dunce. Porch wrote warm termly reports about the boys but in school he called them “tiresome” and “clueless”.

Spencer recounts feeling outcasted from home because he believed he had not met certain standards. He acknowledges a few supportive individuals among the teaching staff, such as Miss Vacqueray. However, positive influences were scarce. At the age of 11, he was relocated to a dorm where a young assistant matron engaged in physical intimacy with select boys under the secrecy of torchlight. Spencer later jokes about his luck, but the early exposure to sex had a detrimental effect on his growth and caused him to experience desires considered inappropriate for someone of his youthful age. He states, “I had already experienced the sensation of a vagina while my peers were still yearning for their first kiss.”

The book stands out not only for its intensity and the healing purpose it serves in allowing Spencer to reclaim his childhood, but also for the authentic details of his memories. From the specific clothing people wore, to their facial expressions and mannerisms, to the language and phrases they used – it’s as if his traumatic experiences have been frozen in time. Surprisingly, despite what he went through, Spencer does not hold a grudge against boarding schools. At the age of 13, he went on to have a positive experience at Eton, and even two of his seven children chose to attend weekly boarding school. (The Maidwell School has expressed regret for the experiences Spencer described, and acknowledged that significant changes have been made since the 1970s). He is also not particularly critical of his parents, though he notes that his father’s depression may have prevented him from noticing his son’s suffering, and his mother failed to be there on time to hear him sing as a soloist. However, Spencer does harbor anger towards the complacency of his parents’ generation – those who saw childrearing as a burden and therefore chose to send their children away, and who believed that a strict regimen would toughen them up and dismissed any complaints as self-pity, even when expressed many years later.

It is possible that some readers may assume that Charles Spencer, who was one of the Queen’s godchildren, had a luxurious and privileged life that softened the impact of his traumatic experiences. However, this is incorrect. Abuse is never justified, regardless of the circumstances. This becomes even more apparent when reading about the fact that children as young as eight were forced to leave their homes for the majority of the year.

The novel “A Very Private School” by Charles Spencer has been released by William Collins. If you wish to show your support for the Guardian and Observer, you can order your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Please note that delivery fees may apply.

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Source: theguardian.com