Notebook: Tormented souls lay Mr Squeers to rest: Wounded survivors of the boarding school system are allowing stiff upper lips to quiver as they ask for help

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NICK DUFFELL is a slender, lightly-bearded psychotherapist who was profoundly unhappy at his prep boarding school and now runs workshops for former boarders. They are turning to him in increasing numbers.

One of them, Mark Dunn, 36, had a rotten time at Durham School, where a master made him stand before a gas fire until the backs of his legs blistered - for not getting his Latin verbs right.

In therapy, the release of emotions sometimes causes the ex-boarders to swoon, bringing out tenderness from fellow-sufferers present. As Mr Dunn says: 'The others picked me up and held me, making a big cradle in which I lay. I felt resurrected and thought, 'I can cope'.' Another man addressed the group thus: 'I'm sorry to say I was a bully at my school, and I feel pissed off being here.' But he stayed, broke down in tears and bared his soul.

I was eight when sent to a prep boarding school. It was by no means a vile place, and I do not think it scarred me horribly. Yet my experience prompts sympathy for Mr Duffell's.

On the phone he said: 'There is a tendency in the British media to mock such things.' My subsequent meeting with him, at the Golders Green offices of his Boarding School Survivors programme, yielded much that was familiar.

What I recall most from my (Irish) prep boarding days was the incontinence of small boys who could neither control their bladders at night nor their tears in the morning when caned for it. Punishment was applied to buttocks, over pyjamas or nightshirts (pink flannel in my case). Those who refused to cry received extra strokes for defiance.

My younger brother, hardly seven, was harshly beaten in this fashion (by a priest]) while I watched, trembling, not so much at his pain as in fear of him blubbing dishonourably. A nine-year-old stoic called Greene fainted outright at the twelfth vicious stroke without having shed a tear for the gratification of the man belabouring him. My older brother was persecuted by pupils and teachers alike because of his shyness.

At night, muffled sobs would break out across the dormitory; by day, the cubicles of school lavatories resounded to heartrending cries from les enfants perdus, while in the junior study hall of an evening, secret monodies dripped into letters home.

I think I avoided the worst of it by learning to box and swear. My prowess was not great, but was sufficient to keep most bullies at bay.

I cannot say whether the experience strengthened my character, or inflicted harm. Some of my present colleagues who also suffered as prep boarders assure me that they will never incarcerate their own children. One described how an uncle had recently revealed on his death-bed that he had been buggered as a boy by his English headmaster (a Jesuit priest). This victim's nephews, aged nine and 11, once were called into their head's priestly study for a shattering message: 'Your mother's dead. Now get back to your classrooms.'

On the other hand, my brother-in-law, who attended my own alma mater, dispatched his daughters and son to boarding schools without discernible ill effect.

Mr Duffell, 43, who boarded first in Switzerland, then at Radley prep school near Oxford, does not object to boarding per se. 'At 14 or 15, the right kind of school can be brilliant, but not at seven.' Once a British disciple of Robert Bly, guru of the American 'men's movement' and author of Iron John, which encourages men to go into forest clearings and weep their frustrations upon the dew, he discovered this was not a panacea. In men who had been through public school torment, 'I sensed a particular kind of vulnerability, a very British woundedness'.

What do Americans think of his efforts? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, examining the work of Boarding School Survivors, was headed:

Some Stiff Upper Lips

Quiver as the British

Recall School Misery

It said: 'In a society famed for its stiff upper lip, baring your soul to a room full of strangers still seems unspeakably 'wet' (Britspeak for weak). And no institution so embodies British stoicism as the boarding school; 'Waterloo,' the Duke of Wellington claimed, 'was won on the playing fields of Eton'. That 'old Etonians' and other graduates now gather instead to 'process the experience' may be the final insult to Britain's faded empire.'

After studying English and Sanskrit at Oxford University, Mr Duffell went to India in 1966 to teach in a private boarding school 'as part of my anti- Establishment rebellion'. The British Raj, extinct by then, 'had been run by men just out of boarding school, who recognised each other, not only by their accents but by the wounds they carried with them as ex-boarders'. Very successful in 'cutting off their feelings', they were capable of leading a platoon into battle, but incapable of getting on with their wives. Many boarding schools, he believes, continue to cultivate inadequacy.

He does not believe he became a psychotherapist as a subconscious act of self-healing. Yet it is interesting that so many boarding school 'victims' have made their careers in that profession. Mark Dunn is a psychotherapist at London's Guy's Hospital. John Witt, who runs therapeutic workshops for ex- boarders at his Spectrum clinic in Finsbury Park, was miserable at his Sussex prep boarding school, though fared better on being transferred to St Paul's in London. His Spectrum co-founder is also an ex-prep school boarder. So is one of Mr Duffell's group-colleagues.

In Mr Witt's view, prep boarding schools 'should be abolished, except in very exceptional circumstances, because what you're doing is taking a kid aged seven or eight and moving him into an unfamiliar social situation for no real reason. Basically, boarding schools are institutions for the middle classes. Our social services don't do that with deprived children. They tend to put them into foster homes, not institutions.'

His workshops are not unlike Mr Duffell's Survivor sessions. Both charge pounds 95 a head per workshop to chip away at public school reserve and what Mr Duffell describes as 'a particular British attitude to children which is at the root of all this'. Between them, Boarding School Survivors and Spectrum deal with about 120 ex- boarders a year, mostly between the ages of 25 and 60, though this year Mr Duffell was approached by a confused Old Etonian aged only 18.

Some groups are a mixture of men and women, some of the latter having been sexually abused as boarders. 'I have had more letters from women than men,' Mr Duffell said. 'Most express guilt at having sent their sons away.' Mark Dunn's mother, for example, felt 'incredibly guilty, and cracks up, unable to deal with it'.

'The thing we're dealing with most is emotional deprivation, emotional abuse and sexual abuse,' said Mr Witt. 'There are horrendous stories. Off the top of my head, there was a boy of nine or 10 who was sent down to be caned and had to go through a dark corridor rumoured to be haunted by ghosts - a gauntlet of fear. Then he had to wait and wait to be caned and return through the gauntlet of fear . . . Another of the themes that keeps coming up is that of longing. You long for home because that's familiar. You then arrive home and it's marvellous for a moment. But the greater your contact with boarding school, the more you may long to go back because home has become less familiar.'

Hardly satanic stuff, you may think, but the experiences of people who have sought help are often searing. Philip Raby, a Bath businessman and Old Radleian who attended Mr Duffell's groups, watches a favourite film over and over again, 24 years after his torment. He loves the bit in If . . . - a 1960s fantasy - where boarding school boys dressed as commandos swarm over rooftops and put a bullet between the headmaster's eyes. Joining 14 other Boarding School Survivors, he 'felt vulnerable', but 'laughed and cried; it was such a relief to pour out all that pain and grief'.

The workshops include role-playing: the ex-boarders pretend to be mothers, fathers and their children. Old snapshots are exhumed so that childish spectres within them may be laid and self-identity reclaimed.

Mr Dunn said: 'I went to boarding school at the age of seven and left with a severe dislike of myself altogether. Too much power was put in the hands of boys of 17 and 18 to abuse and be nasty to younger boys. At least in state schools you can go home every day and complain to your parents, who will then turn up at the school next day and demand explanations.'

But at his prep school solace came only from a tuck box from home, his only contact with family. 'There was a bit of Mum in that box.' Another 'victim' had saved the ash from his father's pipe, seeking parental warmth from the cold, grey residue.

Corporal punishment now hardly exists in Britain's 976 boarding schools. Nor does 'fagging', the uniquely British practice graphically described in Tom Brown's Schooldays. Yet when Childline set up its special telephone line for boarding school pupils nearly two years ago, 10,000 boarders (8.7 per cent of the national boarding total) phoned in with complaints, most of them about bullying and sexual abuse. Spectrum and Boarding School Survivors have also been going for two years and are unable to cope with all who have written for workshop places.

'We have had hundreds of letters from interested ex-boarders,' said Mr Duffell. 'We need to ask ourselves: what kind of children do we want to grow? I suppose we are all like an onion; beneath the outer layers the child is still with us. We say, let that child speak.' Peeling onions, need I add, is a lachrymose occupation.

(Photographs omitted)