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Greater wonders every day

“Shakspeare and the Paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me” – John Keats wrote to his friend  Benjamin Bailey,  14 Aug 1819.

Milton ,the Guardian Spirit of English republicanism, was  the brooding archangel who haunted  all the English Romantics and whose influence – to use Harold Bloom’s famous phrase – provided the Anxiety out of which their original voice had to be wrestled and discovered.

Keats’s poem “On Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” is of those spontaneous occasional pieces which he produced for his friends, almost as after-dinner recitations. He speaks in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey of going to see Leigh Hunt, the origin of Dickens’s Harold Skimpole, “I was at Hunt’s the other day, and he surprised me with a real authenticated Lock of Milton’s Hair.” After he has written the poem out – and it isn’t a very good poem – Keats says,”This I did at Hunt’s , at his request – perhaps I should have done something better alone and at home”. Although not a good poem, it is a good idea for a poem. Keats, a young poet in the year 1818 is suddenly confronted with this relic of another age. As he says in the final line – “Methought I had beheld it from the flood”. He is drawn back into the world of Milton, its long-vanished civil war and religious controversies, and at the same time, he is aware of himself, and his generation, being on the threshold of the modern world, in which most of what Milton believed – except for the unmentionable politics – and took for granted –  is to be cast aside forever.

But vain is now the burning and the strife-

Pangs are in vain – until I grow high-rife

With Old Philosophy

And mad with glimpses of futurity.

In a long letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, written four months after he saw the lock of Milton’s hair, Keats wrote

“I must think Wordsworth is deeper than Milton – though I think it has depended more upon the general and gregarious advance of intellect, than individual greatness of Mind – from the Paradise Lost and the other Works of Milton , I hope it is not too presuming to say, that his Philosophy, human and divine, may be tolerably understood by one not much advanced in years, In his time Englishmen were just emancipated from a great superstition – and Men had got hold of certain points and resting places in reasoning which were too newly born to be doubted, and too much opposed by the Mass of Europe not to be thought etherial and authentically divine – who could gainsay his ideas of virtue, vice and Chastity in Comus, just at the time of the dismissal of Cod-pieces and a hundred other disgraces? Who could not rest satisfied with his hintings at good and evil in the Paradise Lost, when just free from the Inquisition and burnings in Smithfield? The Reformation produced such immediate and great benefits, that Protestantism was considered under the immediate eye of heaven, and its own remaining dogmas and superstitions, then,as it were, regenerated, constituted those resting places and seeming sure points of Reasoning – from that I have mentioned, Milton, whatever he may have thought in the sequel, appears to have been content with this by his writings – He did not think into the human heart as Wordsworth has done – Yet Milton, as a Philosopher had sure as great Powers as Wordsworth – What then is to be inferr’d? O Many things..It proves there is really a grand march of intellect”.

It is a very Hegelian letter. Keats is saying that merely by living in the nineteenth century rather than the seventeenth century, Wordsworth has been able to live without the shackles of dogma which still choked Milton’s imagination and understanding. It is remarkable that this letter, written in May,1818, is divided by only fifteen years from a poem that Keats could not possibly have known – Milton by William Blake, which was written in Felpham, a village on the Sussex coast near Bognor during the poet’s not altogether happy sojourn there. (It ended with Blake having an altercation with his patron, William Hayley; and a much more serious quarrel with a soldier, who invaded Blake’s garden, had a row – which resulted in Blake shouting out words which led to his being charged with sedition at Chichester Assizes. Luckily, the old man was acquitted.)

We remember that Leigh Hunt, who produced the lock of Milton’s hair for Keats to admire, was himself sent to prison for seditious libel against the Prince Regent. The liberty of which Milton dreamed had not perhaps come to pass in the England of John Keats and William Blake.

Like Keats in his letters, Blake, though from a very different perspective, takes Milton to task for being hide-bound by old dogmas from which the Reformation, had it been completed, would have set him free. The poem is dense, difficult – in some passages scarcely comprehensible. But the over-all meaning is clear enough. Milton in his reverence for the old God of Sinai had been the slave of the Law, rather than the Prophet of Grace. In this he had failed as a Prophet, and needs, in Blake’s poem, to undergo a sort of purgatory. In one of the most beautiful passages in the poem, Blake sees a lark rise outside his cottage.

Immediately the lark mounted with a loud trill from Felpham’s vale,

And the wild thyme from Wimbledon’s green & empurpled hills;

And Los & Enitharmon rose over the hills of Surrey.

Their clouds roll over London with a south wind: soft Oothoon

Pants in the vales of Lambeth, weeping o’er her human harvest.

Los listens to the cry of the poor man, his cloud

Over London in volume terrific, low bended in anger.

This is the poem which most people now a days only know from its dedicatory lines – “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green.” Blake wanted a revolution based upon a wholesale Hebraism. He imbibed Thomas Paine, but he despised the cheap and easy way in which revolutionaries ignored their debt to the Everlasting Gospel. The incantatory lines need to be read aloud. Don’t worry too much if some of Blake’s invented mythology is confusing,the first time you read it. Get hold of a good annotated edition, such as W. H., Stevenson’s,published by Longman’s. The poem concerns the most fundamental things possible: how to we lose the tyranny of selfhood, without losing individuality? Cults and religions offer a path, but in all cases they are operating power – the dark Satanic Mills. . Satan had made himself into a plausible God and “destroyed the Human Form divine”. Only by seeking God in Humanity, and abandoning “Natural religion” can he understand “eternal Annihilation; that none but the living shall/Dare to enter”. It is complicated, but at the same time as simple as larksong. “The imagination is not a state: it is human existence itself”.

John Keats’s Dream of Truth

The Letters of John Keats are the extraordinary mirror of a soul, a picture of a great genius responding to impressions, and discovering the nature of his art – discovering, as a mature mind but a touchingly young person what it was that he wanted to do. The Letters are all the more striking, because they belong, so many of them, to the period before Keats came to write the very great works which made his name immortal – the Odes, and the Eve of St Agnes.

It is not possible to say anything new about Keats. We can merely rejoice in his existence.

His poems have been picked to bits by academics, many of whom have had clever-clever insights, but few of whom, I think , have really enlarged our sense of Keats’s achievement. I except from this the very remarkable book by John Jones,, first published in 1969, John Keats’s Dream of Truth. And the works of textual scholarship such as Miriam Allot’s fine edition of his poems in the Longman’s series. I am not an expert on Keats, merely one who finds myself reading his poems and letters repeatedly and always with an enriched enjoyment. And also a sense which grows, as I become older and two of my children are already much older than Keats was when he died, that human lives are not to be measured in time. I am not meaning here to enter the debate of how Keats would have developed as a poet had he lived a full span. That is pointless. But I think you do have a sense in the letters that here was a man of exceptional wisdom and that, tragic – indeed unbearable – as his story is – it is a story of completion rather than of incompletion. His life and achievement were so much fuller than those of us who have lived twice as long as he did.

In his letters,  Keats returns  repeatedly to the liberating power of the Imagination. He wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey

“what might be regarded as his creed, one of the greatest of his letters and one which can fairly be used as a key by which to read his poetry.”

Keats is referring to the Eighth Book of Paradise Lost when he says,

“The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be.Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objectionsa. However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth’ a Shadow of reality to come – and this consideration has further convinced me for it has come as auxiliary to another favourite speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated”.

I do not think that we need take Keats’s words as mere words. When his brother Tom died, some fifteen months after this letter to was written, Keats wrote to his surviving siblings George and Georgiana – “The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang. I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death – yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature or other – neither had Tom”.

Like Blake, though in a very, very different way, Keats does not need the parsonic religion  to confirm his sensations, to confirm the felt life which the Letters so sublimely and so spontaneously record.

“ I am certain of nothing but the of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as beauty must be Truth – whether it existed before or not – for they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.”

In my next Blog, I should like to speak a little of Keats and Blake, two London poets.

Charles Williams

I’ve been reading some of the Oxford World’s Classics paperbacks,  and wondering whatever happened to OUP. Dud, boring introductions, inadequate notes, and shoddy book-production seem to be the norm. The experience makes me yearn for the pocket-sized blue volumes, often printed on India paper, which were one of the glories of OUP in happier days. The man largely responsible for the punctilious editing, and the sound choice of  editors and introducers, was Charles Williams.

Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a cult figure , and remains so. The word “cult” here is used to signify  a figure who can not easily be judged by conventional standards.  His seven novels, compulsive reading for their adepts, fail all the normal tests by which one would judge the merits of a work of fiction. They are ill-constructed, often very carelessly-written, and the characters are either so lightly drawn as to be indistinguishable from one another, or etched in crude caricature. Yet there is nothing  else quite like them in English literature, and you can see why C.S.Lewis pressed them upon his friends, why J.R.R.Tolkien, no great reader of modern fiction, found them compelling, and why T.S.Eliot –  like Williams a London publisher with an adherence to the high party of the Church of England – believed himself to have borrowed from one of them – The Greater Trumps –  a key image in The Four Quartets – “At the still point of the turning world”.

By a similar token, Williams’s poetry is avidly read by his admirers, and you can see why. The early stuff, written under the dire influence of Alice Meynell , Francis Thompson and other “Nineties” Catholics,  would make a normal reader cringe, and the later stuff, when he had discovered Eliot and modernism is not technically good, it is memorable. It has a certain “something” which no other twentieth century poet quite has. In his  autobiography, the current Provost of Eton College – William Waldegrave – expressed his regard for it.

And then there is the Christian apologetics.  The Forgiveness of Sins – dedicated to the friends of his last years, that Oxford groups of C.S.Lewis’s cronies known as The Inklings – is hastily written and seldom sticks to a point. He Came Down from Heaven suffers from some of the same faults. The Descent of the Dove, however, (“A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church”) is indeed short – my paperback copy is a mere 214 pages and covers everything from the Day of Pentecost to the twentieth century. It is without any parallel. You could compare it to Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, but it is much more peculiar, much more wide-ranging, and, to me at least, more memorable. It is a work of – this is the only word which fits – genius.  The same word, I should submit, odd, and sometimes inaccurate as it is, belongs to The Figure of Beatrice in Dante. Reading this, you can see why Williams was, as well as being a writer and a publisher, a teacher of great renown. In his London days, he was a spellbinding lecturer on visits to schools, and at evening classes. When the aerial bombardment of London moved Williams – – and the Oxford University Press who employed him – to Oxford – he gave lecturers in the Divinity Schools. Several of my older friends heard them and all  recollected the same sensations – at first amusement  at Williams’s expense – his grotesque monkey-like face, his strong cockney vowels, his histrionic gestures – and then, after only a few moments, enchantment. No one had spoken in these terms before to this generation of students. Poetry, on this man’s lips, was a living fire. The stuff of English verse –  Milton on Chastity – Wordsworth on the Sublime – was a burning reality for Williams.

No surprise, then, that Williams was an electrifying personality who had a “cult” following in an almost literal sense. Though a married man and a devout Christian, he had a series of young women in his life with whom he played slightly off-colour masochistic games, and to whom he gave mystic nicknames culled from the Mabinogion, Arthurian legend or the Bible. Even his long-suffering wife Flo had to be renamed Michal.

So, where does one “place” Williams? How much of his prolific output has survived the test of time? What was the exact truth behind all the stories of his “disciplining” his handmaidens and groupies?  In his personal life was he a flawed saint, or simply a creep? No wonder Williams has been the subject of a number of biographical studies. It was certainly time, however, for him to be reassessed by someone with the patience to make access to all the archival material, to read what survives of his prodigious correspondence and to re-read the books with critical acumen and with intelligence. Williams  was fortunate that Grevel Lindop , a former Professor of Romantic Literature at Manchester University in Britain,  stepped forward with  a thorough, profound and sympathetic study. This is a portrait which portrays warts and all, but it is never cruel.  One seldom reads the biography of a writer without feeling a certain sympathy for their life-partner, and for Michal Williams, our sympathy is going to be stronger than for most. Yet one also feels in these pages, the extreme pathos of Charles Williams’s life.  For those Christians who continue to look to Williams as a Master, this book will be a tragi-comic reminder that grace is purveyed to us in frail earthen vessels.[2 Cor. 4:7]. To those who prefer to view him in a more secular light, they will surely find in Williams a ripe example of that contrast, delineated so well by T.S.Eliot, between the “man who suffers” and “the mind which creates”.

Williams’s father and mother were poor. During the early infancy of Williams and his sister Edith, the father, a clerk with literary aspirations, went blind, and an uncle set them up in a small shop at St Alban’s, a cathedral town twenty miles north of London. They sold artist’s supplies, it being hoped that lady water-colourists, coming to paint the Abbey and the surrounding Hertfordshire countryside, would keep them afloat. This was scarcely the case, and money was always tight.  Charles was a clever child, and after local schooling, he and a friend were sent at the very early age of 15, to University College London, in Gower Street. Williams studied literature under some legendarily distinguished scholars – W.P.Ker, of Epic and Romance fame, R.W. Chambers, and, Latin classes were taken by no less a figure than A.E.Housman, which might account for the fact that though Williams’s English is often wonky, his Latin, when he breaks into it, is rather good.

Money ran out, so Charles Williams was obliged to leave University without taking a degree and to take any paid work he could find. He started as a packer in the Methodist New Connection Book Room in London’s Holborn. By a lucky break, a friend who had met him at a debating club found him a post as a proof-reader at the London branch of the Oxford University Press – in Amen Court, near St Paul’s Cathedral. The friend, Fred Page, and he, read aloud to one another the complete works of Thackeray, whose proofs they were  seeing through the Press. Williams was to stay at OUP for the rest of his days.

He continued to live at home in St Alban’s and to worship at the Abbey. It was there, helping with the tea for Sunday School that he met Flo Conway, a young trainee schoolteacher, who was to have the great misfortune of becoming his wife. He bombarded her with bad poems, which pursue the themes which would run through all his life’s work. “All soft passion and all sweet content”, he told her, were manifestations of the Holy Ghost. “All lives of lovers are his song of love..The silver and the golden stairs are his, The altar His, yea His the lupunar”. Lindup wonders whether Flo – soon to be Michal – was aware that the lupunar is a brothel .  Thinking of this later in Lindup’s narrative, I wondered whether brothels played a part in the story . Lindup makes no such speculation, but he never explains why Michal and Charles Williams, who lived modestly in a small flat all their married lives with only one child, and who had (apparently) no extravagances were – even when Williams had become a highly-esteemed editor at OUP – everlastingly on the breadline. Clearly Williams was spending his money on something other than his home. Perhaps Williams was simply too generous in charitable giving : that is more than possible. But one does wonder about the lupunar – an extraordinary image to use of God ].

As well as books and religion, magic and arcane rituals were always a part of Williams’s strange imaginative life.

To read The Descent of the Dove is to experience something of what it must have been like to hear Williams declaiming to London evening classes, or to the Divinity School of wartime Oxford. There is the shocking and deliberate oddity.  Jesus Christ is referred to as Messias, and the pronoun which describes Messias in the first few pages of the book is not “He” but “it”. Only when Messias  has “vanished in his flesh; our Lord the Spirit expressed himself towards the flesh and spirit of the Disciples. The Church, itself one of the Secrets, began to be”. The reader who had hoped to have a gentle ride in the train finds herself in one of the helter-skelter at a fairground. She is going to be swooped down, lifted up, turned upside down, and spun in the air before landing.

A recent re-reading of the extraordinary book made me see that it is a poet’s book. Of St Paul, Williams wrote,”to call him a poet would be perhaps improper (besides ignoring the minor but important fact that he wrote in prose). But he used words as poets do; he regenerated them. And by  St Paul’s regeneration of words he gave theology first to the Christian Church”.

It will be no surprise to readers of Williams’s biography, that almost as soon as he has begun his story, he  alludes to St Cyrpian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, censuring the custom of  early Christian tantric sex – or whatever it was – the custom of men and women sleeping together without full union. It was a custom eventually outlawed by the Synod of Elvira (305) and the Council of Nicaea (325). Williams quotes Tolstoy’s appallingly cynical The Kreutzer Sonata – “but then, excuse me, why do they go to bed together?”, adding, so characteristically,”even Cyprian and Tolstoy did not understand all the methods of the Blessed Spirit in Christendom”.

Presumably, here we find a clue to what Williams got up to, or tried to get up to, with the succession of women with whom he had passionate office romances, or intense schoolgirl “crushes”. Phyllis, the equivalent in his life of Dante’s Beatrice, was dubbed by  a furious Michal Williams, “the virgin tart”. There was a little mild sadism – spanking with a ruler, writing poetry on their hands with a pencil –  there was kissing, and holding and squeezing, but nothing further. It is typical if, in so behaving, Williams believed himself to be guided by a custom outlawed by the Church of the Mediterranean in the early fourth century. Equally typical, incidentally, is the haste with which he wrote, and failed to revise, his paragraphs about the Council of Nicaea : in one paragraph, we read, “at Nicaea more than three hundred bishops met”. In the next, we meet “the adorned figure of the Emperor, throned among the thirty score of prelates”. True six hundred is “more than three hundred”, but clearly he intended by thirty score to mean three hundred.

Because he saw the Holy Spirit at work throughout history, Williams wrote only positively of the figures who crossed his pages. It was his contention that Our Lord the Spirit never allowed the men and women who formed  institutional church to lose  the central Thing –  their belief that “My Eros is Crucified” and the Belief that “Another is in Me”.

The Roller Coaster swoops the reader from the conversion of Mohammed to Monotheism, to the coronation of Charlemagne in three pages. (“Where the King of the Franks had come in, the Emperor departed”). The medieval Papacy, in its violent persecution of heresy is almost the only human behaviour in the whole book to be censured. And here he chooses to do so not in his own words but in lord Acton’s, “It cannot be held that in Rome sixteen centuries after Christ men did not know murder was wrong”. Proportionately, however, the high Middle Ages in the West receive the most space in his journey –  with  great emphasis being placed upon the rediscovery of the neo-Platonists . Abelard “like Origen, like Montaigne, is one of those figures whom Christendom has never felt quite certain, and yet from whom Christendom has derived much energy”. The same could be written of Williams himself. Due weight is given to the literature of the Middle Ages – above all to the popularity of the Grail legends (spelt Graal, naturally), to the dream literature, to the mystics and to Dante.  “Dante  had written for all the world, and all the world has neglected seriously to study him.”  One of his novels, describes the strange after-effect, as it were, of two martyrdoms in a town which is obviously St Albans, at the time of the reformation. In one of these , a Protestant goes joyfully to the flames during the reign of Queen Mary and in another, a Jesuit priest is taken to London to be tortured and killed. Both , we are given to understand, are possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the chapter of The descent which deals with the reformation are especially strong in their passionate sympathy both for Calvin and for St Ignatius Loyola. In the chapter on the eighteenth century, we read of Voltaire’s Ecrasez L’Infame – “Christendom will be unwise if ever she forgets that cry, for she will have lost touch with contrition once more”. Similarly, Williams hears the roaring wind of the Spirit in the writings of Kierkegaard. “He has turned Catholics into agnostics for they have not been able to bear that synthesis of reconciliation which which cannot be defined except in his own books. He has turned agnostics into Catholics, for they have felt in him an answer of the same kind as the question, an answer as great as the question. Most Christian answers too agnosticism seem not to begin to understand   the agnosticism; they seem to invoke the compassion og God. In Kierkegaard one feels that God does not understand that kind of compassion”.

As this quotation shows, Williams’s exposition of the faith is a good deal more troubled and more troubling than that of his friend C.S.Lewis in Mere Christianity. He ends the book with the persecution of the Church in revolutionary Russia. One longs for him to  dictate  another chapter, perhaps on an Ouija board during a séance of one of his spookier admirers , describing the strange condition of Christendom in our own day where, in Western Europe, its reversal looks perilously like terminal decline, and where, in the Middle eastern lands which gave it birth, its persecution threatens to end in total  extinction.


I see that the Prime Minister’s prep school, Ashdown House, is to close down. Good! A journalist wrote almost lovingly of the place the other day, recalling that a former headmaster, Billy Williamson, “charmed parents and flogged pupils with equal gusto”. One old boy, now Lord Snowdon, recollected, “On one occasion, our entire class was caned because a boy did something fairly petty and didn’t own up”. At least, after two years of this hell, Snowdon’s nice parents, Anthony Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret, took the boy away from the school. I endured six years at my prep school which was less fashionable than Ashdown House, and where the headmaster’s sado-sexual love of the cane was out of control. By a strange co-incidence, it was the father of the journalist who wrote about Ashdown House, another pupil at my dreadful school – Hillstone, Great Malvern – who opened my eyes to the full horror of what had gone on there. I had supposed, until this distinguished diplomat told me, that the worst which went on was uncontrolled sadism, and a bit of unwanted fumbling and touching at bath time, but he told me of dreadful life-histories, boys who had been anally raped, growing into men who were unable to cope with the emotional wounds. I have since met others whose family members- fathers, uncles, brothers, had been utterly ruined by the suicides or depressive lives of boys raped, tortured and maltreated by Rudolph Barbour Simpson and his wife Barbara at Hillstone.

Here is an article I wrote some years ago about boarding schools.

See the source image

Hillstone School, Great Malvern Worcestershire

Would you send your child to a boarding school? Did you go to one yourself?  Those who aren’t British find our whole relationship with these institutions quite puzzling. People of other nations apparently have their babies because they want them. They enjoy family life, at least some of the time, and consider  it to be one of the greatest privileges in life, to watch their children develop. Family occasions – whether Sunday lunch or bigger festivities such as birthdays and anniversaries, are just that, with all generations gathered around a table.

The British, the more privileged they are, no sooner have a baby than they want to pay someone else to take it away from them . The first few years of the child’s life it was looked after by a nanny. And then, as early as possible, it was packed off to a boarding school. You do not need to have read  about Dotheboys Hall, the horrific boarding school in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, to know that British boarding schools have always been a by-word for discomfort, cruelty (by the children to one another, and by adults to the children)  sadism and sexual perversion. Yet people continue to shell out sums in excess of £25,000 or £30,000 per annum, out of taxed income, to send their children to such places!


British boarding schools grew up , for the most part, during the period of the British Empire, and of the two world wars. Many parents felt, while they were District Governors in Nigeria, or serving officers in the Indian Army, or posted abroad during wartime, that a boarding school in Bexhill or Great Malvern provided an element of stability for their child which they could not provide for themselves.  Several people I know whose parents worked in India during the time of the Raj were sent to boarding school in England as young as four.

But that was in the days of the Raj! What is the chief reason for sending your child to a boarding school today? There is no longer an empire.  The numbers in the armed forces is shrinking year by year. The chief reason for boarding schools is snobbery.

Ninety years ago, in a genteel suburb in Cheshire (Bramhall) my grandmother’s best friend Mrs Berry remarked  that the daughter of one of their neighbours, educated at the excellent local grammar school, had a detectable Northern accent. Horror of horrors! It was decided at once that my mother and her best friend Enid should be sent off to Cheltenham Ladies, lest they be heard to say “buke” instead of “book”.

Both my parents went to boarding schools, and they sent me , my brother and sister to similar places. My own experience  of being sent away at seven to Hillstone School, Great Malvern was horrific. The headmaster, Rudolph Barbour-Simpson, a local magistrate and a much-respected bigwig, was a sexual sadist. His wife was also a monster. When she discovered that her husband fancied one of us, and had been fiddling about with us, she would jealously punish his latest crush, with tortures worthy of the Gestapo : forcing you to eat your least favourite food until you vomited and making you eat the vomit; pushing you into the swimming bath with a  pointed umbrella before you could swim; locking you in a cage all day and encouraging the other boys to jeer at you as you wet yourself.

I wrote an article in the Daily Mail about my experiences at the hands of these brutes.  It generated a  bigger postbag than anything I had ever written before. I had been under the impression that Rudolph’s worst sin was beating the boys until their bottoms bled, sometimes while himself masturbating; or a bit of “fiddling about”.  My correspondents told me of far worse stories, including anal rapes, and later suicides of Hillstone boys.

You will say that my school was not typical. Maybe it was an extreme case, but I do not think it WAS atypical.

When the child abuse scandals began to emerge in the Roman Catholic Church, it was very easy for the rest of us to  sneer at the pervert, often Irish, priests and reflect smugly that “we” were different. But WHY was child abuse, in the RC Church, at the BBC  in the times of  Jimmy Saville, and in care homes and borstals, so blithely ignored or even tolerated during this era? It was because so many men in the so-called Establishment had been abused themselves at boarding school.

The classic pattern of the abused child –  I know because I am one – is to feel ashamed and to say nothing about it. This suppression of an experience comes out in all kinds of ways later in life, often with very peculiar attitudes to sex.

People think that the RC bishop, Cardinal O’Brien,  was a hypocrite because he denounced homosexuality while secretly making passes at his prettier young priests.

But that is classic abuse and abused behaviour. When you have been abused you are in denial, whether you are the abuser or the abused. That is why so many boarding schools got away with it for so long. The left hand literally did not know what the right hand was doing.

Many of our  most respectable boarding schools  shielded men who were a danger to children. Only a  few of these men have been caught, and are now serving their time.

Apart from the sadism and sexual perversion of teachers at boarding schools, there is another reason why such institutions are a danger. And this remains the case, even if such places have now cleaned up their act, and made some attempt to weed out the rotten apples from their staff. That is the innate tendency of children to be cruel to one another.

You can not police a child twenty-four hours a day. But at least, if your child is living at home with you, it is possible to know when he or she goes to bed, when they get up, and to have some general idea (even during the most secretive teenage years) of their state of mind and health. Boarding school teachers will tell you that they stand in the pace of parents and can do this on parents’ behalf with their pupils. But this is simply not the case. Very few boarding school pupils are supervised in the evenings. And there is no way that a boarding-school teacher (in all likelihood less sophisticated than the pupils in the ways of computer technology) can possibly police the cyber-bullying and humiliations which monsters inflict on their victims in so many of these places.

Let me give you a few examples based, admittedly, on anecdotal evidence which belong – not to the bad old days of the 1950s but to now – or to the very recent past.

About ten years ago I was visiting a leading public school to give a talk.  Afterwards I was given tea by the chaplain, and we fell to talking about those of different faiths. I asked him if there were many Jews in the school (which numbers about 700 pupils). “Tell him”, interrupted the chaplain’s wife. The clergyman was shy. “Well, I’ll tell him”, said the woman. “There are  three Jewish boys”, she said. “They are all in our attic. Hiding like Anne Frank. In their ordinary boarding house, they were systematically bullied. Their homework was trashed, and anti-Semitic abuse was heaped on them every single day.. Their lives were made intolerable. When we complained to the housemaster, he said that it was better to leave children to work out these things among themselves”.

As far as I know, this school has never done anything  serious to counteract the effects of bullying.  This is why I believe this. Last year I was at a literary festival. One of those taking part seemed in some distress and over dinner I asked the reason. Her son, at this same school (he was a white South African) was so badly bullied that he had just  ring up threatening suicide if he was not taken away. Their instinct as parents – I still find this incredible – was to leave him in place to cope with the situation on his own. He shared a dormitory with people who sent him abusive text messages all the time. They had stolen his laptop and , using his address, had advertised himself on the world-wide web as a male prostitute. Highly specific and horrifically obscene descriptions were given of what this 13-year old boy “offered” to his clients. His whole life was in ruins.

In the very week I heard this story, another family were  coming to a very different conclusion about their 14-year old son at a different leading boarding school –  a school which costs £30,000p.a. and has not only huge snob-appeal but a smug   reputation for being arty and liberal.. He was being  so badly and so consistently bullied they decided to take him away.It never let up. The staff did nothing to help. He is now going to a local day school and the transformation in that boy’s character is a marvel to behold.

I tell these stories not to be sensational but as evidence of what it is actually like, now, as you read these words on the page of the newspaper, to be locked up in a boarding school away from your family. I am sure that most head teachers  hope against hope that most of their pupils are not being tortured by their fellow-inmates. And of course, compared with our day, the level of physical comfort is much higher.  Children have their own rooms. The houses are heated. You do not have to break the ice in the water each morning before you clean your teeth. Also, corporal punishment has been abolished. But there is still no way you can prevent young people being nasty to one another. And you can not police them 24 hours a day. That is why the incidence of dangerous drug-taking at all our leading public schools is so much higher than in state schools.

If you are separated from your family at the age of seven, you are cut off from an essential learning-process. Something far more important than  mastering a middle-class accent or getting an A* in GCSE- that is, the more middle or upper class you are, the less chance you have to learn how to love. I was fond of  my parents, but in a distant way. I never had a row with them –  any more than I’d have thought of wrestling emotionally  with some distant relations I saw a few times a year.  Like most Englishmen of my class, I grew up without any emotional education. Learning about the emotional life has been a chaotic journey, for me, and my lovers and children. No wonder the Establishment, filled with chaps like me, took so long to wake up to the terrible damage done by sexual molesters, bullies and – yes, by the very institution of boarding schools themselves.

Mystery of Charles Dickens

Nice review by Professor John Mullan , chosen as The Guardian Book of the Week.

Wilson concedes all the contradictions and hypocrisies anatomised by John Carey in his brilliant, often openly exasperated study of Dickens, The Violent Effigy – but forgives him. Dickens had to contend with the “vast, smoky, cruel, boundlessly energetic, steel-hearted nineteenth century”, which made him variously cruel and sentimental. He was, after all, a nobody, who had grown up “with nuffink”. Alone among all great writers of the 19th century, he had “not merely looked over into the abyss. He had lived in it.” His lifelong insecurity was another creative asset.

If you are a Dickens aficionado, you will think that much of the book’s biographical narrative is well-known material, though here revisited in a sprightly manner. Yet its last, highly personal section suddenly shifts your sense of Wilson’s commitment to his subject. In his final chapter, he remembers first encountering episodes from Dickens at the age of eight or nine at his private school, which was “in effect a concentration camp run by sexual perverts”. The teacher who introduced him to Dickens was himself utterly sinister and Dickensian, the skill with which he impersonated Fagin and Squeers “all too convincing”. The shards of Dickens sustained his spirits among the privations and abuse visited on him by the paedophile headmaster and his monstrous wife, uninhibited sadists in Wilson’s vivid, detailed account. After this, nothing would convince him that Dickens should be condescended to as insufficiently “realistic”. And in returning him to the “abject terror and hopelessness” of childhood, but with that strange Dickensian stir of laughter (Fagin and Squeers, those comic turns), the novelist, hypocritical and self-deceiving as he might have been, has done him some matchless kindness.

To read the rest of the review

 The Mystery of Charles Dickens is published by Atlantic (£17.99).


Pedigree – again!

Back to Pedigree. The Simenon masterpiece. The book, very long by comparison with his dozens of more celebrated novellas, is an evocation of childhood and adolescence in Liege. It ends with the author aged sixteen, staying out all night to celebrate the armistice of 1918 . The prosperous butchers who have done well out of the war by supplying sausages to the Germans, and the Belgian women who have slept with the enemy, receive their punishments. The butchers are looted. The women are stripped naked in the streets and their hair is cropped. So even in this moment of rejoicing, the sharp eyes and pessimistic imagination of the writer sees the cruelty and murderousness of human nature. Incidentally, in the earlier part of the book, which is in part the ironic story of how a Belgian child from a non-literary family came to be the most famous “French” crime writer, he lets fall that several of the Flemish side had committed murders..

Simenon’s mother escapes punishment by the vigilantes at the end of the war. Obsessively chaste, she would not have dreamed of sleeping with a German soldier, nor with anyone except her boring husband, but she would undoubtedly have qualified as a “collaborator”.   When her only  child was tiny,  she had begun to supplement her despised husband’s income (he is an insurance clerk)  by letting out rooms to lodgers. The budding novelist nosily observes these figures with the coldness of a forensic scientist. The fat, smelly Jewish girl who eventually goes off to Berlin to become a distinguished pupil of Professor Einstein. The even smellier Russian girl who is a communist. Roger Mamelin, as Simenon calls himself, sees them all, just as he sees his mother’s craven politeness to the German officers at the beginning of the war, and has been observing, ever since he could open his eyes, all the differences between his mother’s part-German, part-Flemish family, the Peterses, who have come down in the world, and the rather contemptible Walloon family to which his father belongs.  (When with her sisters, the mother speaks Flemish ). The stultifying boringness of every week of the child’s life is conveyed , and the mystery is that there is not as single boring page in the book. His father does nothing except walk to his office, eat a sandwich when the others go for their lunch, visit his own enormous family – his father is a hatter – and attend Mass once a week, always sitting in the same pew.

The mother has consecrated the young Simenon to the Lord. She dresses him as an infant always in blue, the Blessed Virgin’s colour, and one of the most excrutiating early scenes involves the visit of an uncle from Brussels, an umbrella salesman, who takes out the little boy and dresses him in a suit of bright scarlet, like the devil. Needless to say, “Roger” wets the suit , which his mother has to wash and press, before returning it to the shop. The mother hopes the little boy will be chaste forever, one of the most forlorn hopes in the history of Belgium. Almost as soon as he can move, the little boy enjoys looking up skirts, peering at the female lodgers and fascinating himself with sex, which nearly always makes him even sadder than he was before. Young Roger confides in one of his mother’s sisters that he lost his virginity aged 12, and, by the age of fifteen, when he makes the confession, he is already the erotomaniac known subsequently to literature, fascinated by the smell, cynicism, and humour of the town’s low-life women, stealing from the till of his grandfather’s shop to pay for his prostitute-addiction, as well as discovering quite a range of sexual misbehaviour and appetite among his supposedly respectable family and friends.

One of the deftest things about the book  is the way in which he conveys his literary objectives. When Desire, his father, has a heart-attack, young Roger takes a job in a bookshop-cum-lending library, from which he is sacked for impertinence. A customer has come in, asking for a book called Le Capitaine Pamphile. The bookseller, who hates “Roger”, insists the book is by Gautier, whereas Roger knows, of course, that it is by his favourite author, Alexandre Dumas, pere – like Simenon himself, a prodigiously prolific author. So, as he walks out of the bookshop as a dismissed nobody, we know, and he knows, that he will one day be a Dumas in his own right.

When my brother was a don at UEA, he pointed out to the librarian that the shelves did not contain a single volume by Simenon, and this is surely emblematic of the fact that for many English-speakers, he remains, simply, the creator of  Maigret. Not a “serious” writer at all, still less the sort of writer you would read if you were studying literature at a university. Wonderful as the Maigret stories are, his creator is much, much more than this. John Lanchester, in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, says that the best non-Maigret is The Snow Was Dirty, about he murder of a soldier in an occupied country. Anita Brookner, a committed fan, nominated Chez Krull, and I, would certainly place this one very high. I’d also rate The Train as one of the best novellas ever written. This Belgian whose family scarcely speak normal French (he starts to mock his father’s Walloon dialect) would become one of the very greatest French writers of the 20th century. Gide – who had some of the generosity of Ezra Pound when it came to recognizing the genius of writers unlike himself –  could see  Simenon’s greatness. And it is thanks to Gide that we have Pedigree.

It was he who suggested that Simenon write it as a novel rather than as simple autobiography. This did not prevent many of the characters in the book successfully pursuing Simenon for damages – one of the reasons why he escaped to the USA to spend some of the 1950s away from his vengeful friends and relatives. Gide called Simenon , “the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature”.

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