Atlantic Books, £14.99. Order at £12.99 inc. p&p from the  Independent Bookshop

A Conversation About Happiness: the story of a lost childhood by Mikey Cuddihy, book review

 

although much written about in novels, few first-hand accounts exist of actually attending a progressive school. Mikey Cuddihy's memoir of her time at AS Neill's famous Summerhill helps rectify this imbalance. She started in 1962 aged 10 and stayed for the next six years, and writes perceptively about the benefits and contradictions of a school so determined to set its pupils free.

Born in America, she was one of a family of five orphaned children split between two widely separated experimental boarding schools after they all came to Britain. At Summerhill, she forged close relations with some of the staff and children, also using the personal freedom and emotional space allowed to all pupils there to develop her talent in art. Eventually its uncomfortable and run-down buildings, freezing in winter, came to seem a substitute home. But she never stopped grieving for parents who had died in separate road accidents after living dangerously long before.

Sex has always been a problem for boarding schools, but particularly for a co-educational establishment given over to the philosophy of the sinister and eventually mad psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Neill, a former patient, also believed Reich's main tenet that "sex with love is the greatest pleasure in the world, and it is repressed because it is the greatest pleasure". But while kindly and honourable himself, members of his under-paid staff were sometimes less so. Pupils, including Cuddihy's two brothers, also tried some experimenting. Her account of how knowledge of what they once got up to came to affect her relationships with them makes painful reading.

But her story is about much more than sex, despite the gleeful way this aspect has already been seized on by sections of the press. Suffering from a bad stammer, she received invaluable support from some others, eventually serving her time as an effective chairman – her word – of the weekly Tribunal. This highly popular event, much valued by Neill, consisted of the full complement of 60 pupils or so sitting in sometimes raucous judgement upon each other after hearing various accusations of misdemeanours from the floor. Punishments usually consisted of fines taken from the weekly distribution of pocket money plus the indignity of being found in the wrong.

Celebrating his 80th birthday in 1963, Neill was beginning to lose his grip over his beloved school, and there are some scary reports of pupils attempting their own coup spurred on by generally deteriorating behaviour all round. But however shocking some will find the idea of a school where lessons were voluntary, the sports ground was never used, pupils regularly swore and smoked and tuition, where it existed, was often hopelessly amateur, they should remember that many orthodox boarding schools at the time sometimes seriously failed pupils in other ways. Cuddihy survived her damaged childhood both because of and despite her time at Summerhill. This paradox lies at the centre of her well-written and moving memoir.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?