At a now-closed Wiltshire boarding school, girls passed out using a different method. "You would hug someone until they fainted," recalls a former pupil. "It was consensual, and you got this momentary feeling of being out of control."
Indeed, fainting for fun is a practice with which even toddlers are only too familiar. My own two-year-old daughter loves to turn round and round ever faster in circles until she crashes to the ground either laughing or crying, her head all of a spin.
Fainting is part of an ancient and enduring childhood culture, passed on by young people to each other seemingly without reference to adults and somehow forgotten by grown-ups. Perhaps this explains why adults were apparently so shocked to hear of Nicholas Taylor's recent death at Eton. Nicholas, 15, had been playing the "fainting game", in which a dressing- gown cord was gradually tightened around a boy's neck to restrict the flow of oxygen to his brain. Normally, it was done by a group. "You would tap on your thigh," said one pupil at the inquest. "When you stopped tapping, it would signal the others to let go." The attraction, said another pupil, was that "it made you feel abnormal".
But Nicholas went one step further than his peers. He is believed to have attempted the thrill for himself by tying one end of the cord to the door of his room. He accidentally killed himself by asphyxiation. Death by misadventure was the coroner's verdict.
The tragedy has put the spotlight on other, often equally dangerous, practices undertaken within the confines of boarding schools, where the private world of children can create its own mad rituals.
It is not just a boys' thing. The fainting-through-hugging ex-schoolgirl recalls: "Apart from smoking, taking dope and drinking cider, a great favourite was spraying deodorant into a plastic bag and inhaling it. The dizziness it produced was said to be very pleasant, although the price you paid was an unspeakable headache half-an-hour later. But people still did it because you could be amazingly bored stuck in an artificial environment."
Girls in other schools likewise have their moments of craziness. In 1994, girls at Roedean painted an 80-ft replica of Dorset's Cerne Abbas giant on their sports field the day before sports day. The same year, 51 fifth- formers from a girls' boarding school in Oxfordshire ran amok in the school grounds, hurling stink-bombs, paint and eggs. People were awoken a quarter of a mile away by the riot.
The peer pressure to do something wild is particularly strong in boarding schools, says Mary MacLeod, of Childline, which will soon revive a special helpline service for boarders. "Young people in boarding schools spend an awful lot of time together. They are looking for more from each other, so that ups the ante. And because they don't have homes to go to in the evening, they don't get out of the situation. So a culture of risky behaviour can develop, particularly among boys proving their masculinity."
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer, is a good example. He found a way of becoming popular at Eton after experiencing initial misery. "I gathered together a group of boys who were also not great sportsmen and formed a sort of dangerous sports club," he recalls. "The aim was to climb to the top of the highest school buildings at night. This took a certain ingenuity, because we were forbidden to go out at night, and I had to get out of the bedroom I shared with 45 other boys and do it without being noticed.
"The next hurdle was getting through the lighted streets to the target building, climbing up the outside and adorning the summit with some sort of marker. Then we had to get back into bed again without being detected." Fortunately for Sir Ranulph, he never fell off a building.
He is not the only public figure to have engaged in bizarre and dangerous pranks at school. In his autobiography, General Sir Peter de la Billiere describes how, while a pupil at Harrow, he took a .22 rifle from the school armoury and tried to shoot out the lights of a room full of celebrating pupils. "I rested the rifle on the railings of the teaching-block," he writes, "and took a couple of pot shots. For some reason I missed the bulb."
Ex-public school boarders will describe equally bizarre goings-on involving ouija boards, drugs and alcohol. "I know five people who are heroin addicts," said one friend. "They all started at boarding school."
Mary MacLeod is unsurprised by such behaviour. "Some children in boarding school are all grown-up with nowhere to go," she says. "This is particularly true these days when young people seem to be growing up faster. They are surrounded by images of the exciting life young people could have. But they can't get at it. That increases their interest in developing some excitement."
The death of Nicholas Taylor at Eton has prompted criticism that the school authorities should have known more about what was going on and stopped it. One witness told the inquest: "On average six or seven faintings took place each evening. I was `fainted' about 20 times."
However, the structure of boarding often makes it hard for teachers to know what is going on - especially somewhere like Eton, which emphasises independence and privacy: pupils have their own rooms. It's also worth remembering that boarding school pupils do not themselves know what some of their peers are up to.
"It was only after I left that I knew about the covert relationships that would have scandalised my school," says another former boarder. "I was totally unaware, although perhaps I should have realised from a revue when a junior dressed up as a girl and an older boy played his lover."
Eton's hierarchy seems equally mystified to learn about the prevalence of "fainting". John Lewis, the headteacher, says teachers have spoken "in the strongest terms" to pupils about the practice. But lecturing young boarders may not be the answer.
"A school needs a system of pastoral care that involves the pupils themselves, says MacLeod. "It's not enough for instructions to come down from teachers. There is a gap between adults and young people, and we forget that at our peril. Young people have their own lives and will exclude adults. So it is extremely difficult to know what is going on. Young people must be encouraged to work with teachers to create a comfortable emotional environment. Hopefully, it will direct their energy in a safer direction."
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