Dear Anthony Chenevix-Trench: The Old Etonian novelist addresses the man who was headmaster from 1963 to 1970, following revelations about his cane-wielding in 'Eton Renewed', the new book by the present vice-provost, Tim Card

I'm writing to you, although you were never my headmaster, and anyway you're dead. But perhaps you get the Independent in heaven, or wherever Eton headmasters go when they die. My headmaster was 'Red Robert' Birley. He was a tall man, looked even taller in his gown and mortar, and when he flogged a boy, which he did ritualistically on a traditional block, it was said that the boy stayed flogged.

Later I corresponded with him on Amnesty International business when he was fighting apartheid. I couldn't understand how he could flog small boys and then fight white supremacists. Birley taught me not to jump to conclusions. Perhaps I shouldn't with you either.

Boys and masters flogged at Eton. 'Pop-tannings' were particularly unpleasant. The victims received one stroke from each member of Pop - 21 strokes if all were present, and I expect they cancelled previous engagements to be there. Members of house libraries caned, with 'The Ride of the Valkyries' blaring from the old HMV console.

When I became house captain I announced that I would not beat boys. My housemaster, 'Purple' Parr, encouraged me but warned that it might not be easy to keep order unless I did. It wasn't and in the end I did. The boy was called Nutting, son of the Foreign Secretary. The infliction of pain is exciting. Like rape, it's more about power than sex, but sex is a part of it, isn't it? As I beat Nutting I was ashamed of myself - sorry, Nutting - and afterwards I never resorted again to the cane. Curiously, I don't think Nutting had done much wrong.

I think you took over shortly after my book The Fourth of June came out in 1962. The novel attacked Eton on three counts: snobbery, which was rife, homosexuality, which was inevitable, and beatings, which were not. People said to me: 'Good book, but too late - the battles have been won.' I hoped so.

By the time you took over I assumed that the boys were treated with dignity as children should be. I should have realised that headmasters, despite the gowns and mortars, are far from being saints. Did you hate yourself or those you flogged while you flogged? Did you love them? - that would have been really sick. Did you believe you were helping them? Did you play the guilty memories back in your damaged head at night?

This week I heard a woman on Radio 5 calling for the return of flogging, for girls as well as for boys. Most callers agreed with her. One old cretin of 84 wanted parents and grandparents of offenders flogged. Apparently most Americans are in favour of young Michael Fay being brutally flogged in Singapore. Will CNN cover the event?

And then I thought: they ban violent videos and shred sex education manuals, but permit their children to be beaten at school. The way things are going, they'll bring back the cane in primary schools. If I was asked which would damage a child more, to watch violent images, or to suffer violent assaults, I know what I would answer.

(Photograph omitted)

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