Stop blubbing, Branson

Caning is worse than low-grade sexual abuse
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The Independent Culture
THE NEWS, headlined recently on the front page of The Mirror, that Richard Branson has joined the ranks of celebrity child abuse victims, having been obliged to mess around with an older boy at his public school, will doubtless have spoken eloquently to the thousands of middle-class, middle-aged men who, like Richard, passed most of their childhood at boarding schools. Perhaps, on behalf of these people, I could summarise our response.

Oh boo-hoo, Branson. Why don't you go and blub behind the rhododendrons?

Because, say what you like about the old-fashioned boarding-school education, it did at least set you up with an excellent basic grounding in the whole important area of messing around.

Of course, we messed around. We were adolescent boys, locked away from the world, frustrated and confused. Boredom hung in the air like the stale smell of cabbage, toast and old jockstraps. What else were we to do? It even happened at my public school which, in messing around as in most other areas, was in the second rank, our bewildered gropings in the dorm comparing badly to the sophisticated daisy-chains of misbehaviour that existed in rival establishments.

At my prep school, on the other hand - an establishment now mercifully defunct - child abuse of one kind or another was a central part of the curriculum and one which, bewildered innocents that we were, we took as a natural part of the educational process. Only after we had left, for example, did any of us begin to wonder whether the Latin master's method of marking our unseens and parsing was entirely normal.

As you stood beside his desk in class, his hand would be up the leg of your shorts, caressing gently until he came across an inaccuracy which he corrected with a tender pinch. While this teaching method was not entirely welcome (his hands were extraordinarily cold), it was generally thought to be preferable to those favoured by other masters - the violent tweaking of the short hairs at the back of your neck, the sudden, unprovoked hurling of a hard blackboard duster, the slaps around the back of the head as you worked on a sum.

Now, this is tricky. Without wanting to justify the Latin master's behaviour - life is complicated enough without acquiring a reputation as the paedophile's friend - I have no doubt that this low-grade, unthreatening abuse, which would have horrified our parents had they known about it, was incomparably less harmful to us than the institutionalised sadism which they not only knew about but were also paying good money for.

The real shadow over our lives was not the Latin master and his cold fingers but the headmaster and his favourite educational tool, a cane. A keen disciplinarian, this man beat boys of seven upwards so frequently, and for such trivial offences, that his catch phrase "Bend over, boy, I'm going to give you a good whacking" became a much feared part of school life. What was perhaps more unusual, although none of us realised it until we reached the comparatively gentle world of public school, was the manner of his beatings.

Without fail, boys would be black and blue after a beating, and sometimes the skin would be broken. Those to whom he took a particular dislike - or liking, perhaps - were whacked so hard that, two days later, they would have difficulty walking. Some boys became so traumatised that they had to be taken away from the school. Of those who survived, it seems likely that a fair number took the disciplinary lessons provided in the headmaster's study into later life, becoming hard-line Tory MPs, angry columnists for The Spectator or, at the very least, regular, whimpering clients of Madame Whiplash.

Of course, none of this could probably happen today in our respectable prep schools. And yet, whenever I read an editorial solemnly arguing that the solution to juvenile crime is early, hands-on discipline, or see a TV studio filled with parents baying for the right to hit their children, or on the other hand, find that the lead story in a tabloid newspaper is a breathless version of Richard Branson's messing-around experience presented as yet another child abuse horror, I wonder whether things have changed that much.

Miles Kington returns next week.