Let’s hope that my generation is the last to carry the invisible scars of dormitory bullying

Boarding school was meant to  make a man of us, but what if it made us quite the wrong kind of man?

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The Independent Online

In these emotional times, it is no surprise to find a celebrity motoring correspondent opening his review of a £90,000 Range Rover with lengthy, heartfelt riff about how he was bullied at school.

The famous sometimes find it useful to have a dark hinterland, some significant bit of sadness from their past which can be produced at the right moment, rather as a war veteran might show his scars to get a free drink. These painful revelations remind the world that even the celebrated have suffered, like the rest of us.

All the same, it was startling to find Jeremy Clarkson playing the blubbing-in-the-dorm card in his Sunday Times column this week. Until now, his public school years have been presented as a time of teenage roistering – smoking, boozing, sex (heterosexual, of course) and expulsion. Now that life has become trickier for him, a different, sadder account is emerging.

“As the years dragged by, I suffered many terrible things,” he wrote. “I was thrown on an hourly basis into the icy plunge pool, dragged from bed in the middle of the night and beaten.” Later, older boys snapped his compass, ate his biscuits and defecated into his tuck box – “all the usual humiliations used back then to turn a small boy into a gibbering, sobbing suicidal wreck”.

A few of those who have passed through Britain’s ghastly boarding school system may be wondering at this point whether Clarkson is not being slightly wet. Beaten? Someone eating his biscuits? The traditional tuck-box squat? These were part of public school life. In adult life, the system would bring huge unfair advantages to people like Clarkson and me. If there was some light bullying along the way, it was a small price to pay.

The subtext of these stories is always the same. It is that those years of being biffed and brutalised have shaped a person’s life. Who could be surprised that a poor little boy whose compass was broken at Repton should grow up to be a bit of a bruiser who punches someone for not providing the right meal at the end of a working day?

It is a worrying idea. Boarding school was meant to make a man of us. What if it made us quite the wrong kind of man?

Not long ago, I encountered someone whose sorrowful eyes immediately took me back 50 years to the prep school we both attended from the age of seven. He was an unhappy boy who burst into tears so often that we called him “Flood”. Later that evening, I met his wife. She told me that his life had been genuinely haunted by his childhood experiences. It had shaped his view of the world.

That strange prep school probably defined all of our lives in some way. Set in an improbably grand house, with a deer park, a ha-ha and a wood known as “the Pleasury”, the school, I now see, was a hotbed of pervs and psychos. One master corrected our Latin unseens with his hand up our shorts, his cold hand pinching a bare buttock when he found a mistake. I liked him and, being innocent, felt entirely unthreatened by this form of teaching which happened, weirdly enough, in front of the class.

Far more frightening was the headmaster, a wet-lipped, moustachioed punishment freak whose pleasure it was to beat small boys with a cane until they were black and blue. My first beating happened soon after I arrived, when I was seven.

Today it seems clear to me that he was a sexual sadist, but it was he who set the moral and disciplinary tone of the place. He might even have told himself that he was doing a good, moral thing with his enthusiastic thrashings. When, years later in the 1980s, the brother of a boy who had become famous said in an interview that his brother had been beaten until blood ran down his legs, the old creep, now long retired, successfully sued him.

I have no doubt that six years spent at that peculiar establishment have left me, like Flood, with a few issues. Even good boarding schools tend to make you warily self-sufficient; this one, where those in charge of our lives were irrational and brutal, has engendered a rather useful distrust of those in authority.

Oddly, it was not the headmaster’s cane or the Latin master’s wandering hands which have left me with the most painful memory of my schooldays. At the age when Clarkson was suffering his many terrible things, I was at Wellington College, a school which in those days was devoted to solid mediocrity: it believed in sending out boys who would fit in, not cause a fuss.

Nobody did anything nasty in my tuck box but, for a year or two, I had an unpleasant time. I was quite pretty and the older boys, to my utter bewilderment, made me a target. I was given the nickname “Tarty Terence”. I must have walked in a particular way because I earned the secondary name “Swish Hips”. There were songs, jokes at my expense. Older boys made comments to me; I had no idea what they were talking about.

There was no actual abuse, and today it all seems rather absurd, but it must have had an effect on me. To avoid returning to Wellington at the end of one holiday, I took a small overdose – it delayed my return for a day. The shame of those days was such that it has stayed with me. I have never written, or even talked about them, until today. My chief persecutor went on to become a senior general. No doubt he is a nice old cove today.

Clarkson’s Range Rover review brought back unwelcome memories. The public schools of past decades were grim places which helped establish privilege, unfairness and unkindness in the hearts of middle-class boys. Let us hope for all our futures that they have changed.