You can hang on to the worst of times, and this stops you going forward . . . and I think now of all the time I have wasted by hanging on to mine.

The worst period of my life, without any question, was when I went to boarding school, aged seven. The education was atrocious, and the cruelty was ghastly.

The extraordinary thing about England is not so much that these schools exist, but that people queue up to send their children there.

I went to a prep school in Oxford, which was considered to be a good prep school, called Summerfields. The two who ran it were far too old to be running a prep school, completely out of touch with the future.

The first three weeks you were allowed to settle in, and no one beat you. The minute the three weeks were over, I was beaten. There wasn't a reason: I was beaten as an example to the other new boys.

The whole school was based on fear. We were frightened children, living in suspicion and fear, fear of the masters, fear of the people who were meant to be giving us an education. And because they could punish you totally at will, and you had no one you could appeal to, you never trusted any of the teachers, and children should trust adults. To learn to trust again is very difficult when it is taken away from you so young.

I did Latin and Greek three hours a day, five days a week, which was a total waste of time: if you are being taught by rote, as we were, you aren't being stimulated. It was an atmosphere that threatened curiosity, it just wanted order and had no desire to challenge you.

What that school taught me was to close up; it taught me how to hide what I really felt. I learnt never to be spontaneous, and I learnt to suspect pleasure. I ceased being me at that school.

I can think of one master who was kind to me. It was in my last year. If I had come across him before, I would have had a totally different attitude to education. He was a human being, he didn't threaten you all the time. He encouraged you, and I think education is about encouragement and curiosity - to encourage curiosity.

I kept on wondering why my parents had sent me there. They could see I was unhappy, it was quite apparent: right up to the age of 13 I used to cry before each term began. They would be rather embarrassed.

Years and years later, I had a conversation with my father and he asked me if I had ever been unhappy. I told him I was unhappy for six years.

'Oh,' he said, 'when was that?'

And I said: 'At prep school.'

'Funny,' he said, 'so was I]'

I suppose the fact that I have talked about this as the worst of times is proof that it isn't out of my life, and I regret that.

But it was six years. I am 53 years old. Six years is a large chunk of my life; even when I am 60, a 10th of my life will have been spent in that place.

It would be wonderful if this was the last time I ever spoke or thought about that school again . . . but, alas, memory and dreams play terrible tricks on you.

I am deeply ashamed that I put up with what happened. I'm ashamed I didn't burn down that school.

I wish I could turn around that experience and make it a positive part of my life, but I can't. I still suspect this country's values because of the importance it places on such an education system. The most positive thing I can say is that I have always held with suspicion what someone with an upper- class accent says to me.

Toby Eady, youngest son of the writer Mary Wesley, is a literary agent.

(Photograph omitted)