The Eton beating song

Roger Clarke reads a doomed attempt to recsue a reputation; The Land of Lost Content: the Biography of Anthony Chevenix-Trench by Mark Peel Pentland Press, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
The forlorn social misfit known as "Chummy'' to his boys burst on the popular consciousness two years ago, when an otherwise pedestrian history of Eton College noted that Anthony "Chummy'' Chevenix-Trench was removed from headmastership of the school in the Sixties, partly out of concern over for his fondness for flagellating boys. A careful establishment cover-up was lain bare; news of it even featured on the front pages of several newspapers.

Eton has had its fair share of deviant headmasters. The poet Swinburne became a seasoned and unapologetic flagellist directly as a result of his schoolboy experiences at Eton. Eton schoolboys even now are gently dissuaded by the librarian from asking to see the original manuscript of Swinburne's "The Flogging Block'', a slavering, weak-minded celebration of corporal punishment that was acquired (I suspect) about the time of Chevenix-Trench's efforts to refurbish the school library.

If the Eton birch sent Swinburne mad, Chevenix-Trench was already mad before he got there; that seems the kindest way to interpret Peel's quaint biography of the man. A prisoner-of-war working on the Burmese railway for the Japanese army, he endured conditions from which no-one could be expected to recover. His time at Eton, as a result, seems to have been one long battle to avoid a nervous breakdown. Eton in the Sixties was quite decrepit and full of hopelessly arcane Edwardian practises; Chevenix- Trench went about trying to get rid of the more bizarre customs - though to position him as some kind of "moderniser'', as Peel does, seems unjustified. His Achilles heel was always his passion for beating, and no moderniser could espouse such a practice. William Waldegrave, then a callow youth already given to speechifying, was the object of Trench's ire when he campaigned against birching in the school magazine.

Trench was also a drunk, and when discipline began to break down in the school, the governors removed him. It was a crushing blow from which the poor man never recovered. However Fettes College took him on; Tony Blair was one of his pupils. These days he'd be put on one of Michael Howard's sinister lists, and would be unlikely to find another teaching post.

This book would not have been published had it not been for the recent allegations, and it is a book with an obvious agenda: the memoir as character witness. The way it refers to its subject in the first person throughout as "Tony'', and its absurdly pompous rhetorical flourishes ("Tony's reputation lay pierced and bloodied like the toga of some murdered Caesar'') will not gain Chevenix-Trench any new friends. Eton, now modernised and humane, is better off keeping quiet about his dubious regime. It certainly doesn't need Trench's cronies coming up with half-baked hagiographies like this.

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