“Complacency allowed the public schools to regroup like some terrible fungi waiting to come back.”
In conversation with Richard Beard
Richard Beard is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books including two recent memoirs, The Day That Went Missing and Sad Little Men. Having recently read his book Sad Little Men and enjoying every page, I took the time to speak to Richard about his experiences of the public school system and how he feels it shaped him and the boys of his generation.
MH: As your book is mostly about the negative sides of a public school upbringing, do you think there were any particular advantages for you personally or fond memories you have of your school days?
RB: There’s obviously advantages because that’s why the parents pay for it. All of the professional opportunities that come later because of that schooling. Its partly to do with the confidence of it and its also to do with the straightforward connections between public schools and some Oxbridge colleges. Then later on coming into media jobs, law, any professions really there will be people like you there who had the same education, and therefore in interviews they’ll warm towards people who have the same kind of mannerisms as them. I think publishing books is partly a dividend of a public school education, it makes it easier and it would be wrong to say that isn’t true. I think it’s important to say about this book that I was really into sport and I was in all the teams, and I was clever so I was top of the class and therefore I got the best out of it, yet I still thought it was a hugely damaging experience. I was not someone who was sniffling in the corner, being bullied and deciding I didn’t like it because of those reasons.
I think publishing books is partly a dividend of a public school education, it makes it easier and it would be wrong to say that isn’t true.
MH: Do you think the overtly patriotic messaging you received was purely a legacy of the colonial element of public schools, or was it a more sinister and political attempt to condition you?
RB: It was directly political. We had a school assembly in 1983, where the headmaster wanted to bring everyone together to celebrate how wonderful the Tory victory had been, so he was training all those boys in that room, and they were all boys, to think in a certain way. At the time, the Labour Manifesto did have the abolition of public schools as a policy and so there was clearly a direct sense of victory there for the schools themselves. That sense of being part of one section of society that voted in a certain way was overt I think. The patriotism is a throwback to colonial times; these schools were set up originally in the Victorian era to provide administrators for the empire among other things, and that sense of duty to the country was trumpeted. The patriotic duty was also very much tied up with personal advancement, so what was good for you was good for the country.
MH: How do you think you’ve managed to “break out” of the public school mentality and do you think this book is your way of “breaking out”?
RB: There are ways of “breaking out” and anyone who wants to write seriously enters into a process of extreme self-examination, if it’s a memoir or really any other book. That’s one way to get out it; to open your eyes to the way the world is, it’s not just the way the public schools think it is. Sport is another way to “break out”, because if you carry on doing sport and you go into a town or city sports club, you very quickly meet a wide range of people and they will change your views very rapidly. Your personal relationships change and the people you meet are going to be huge influences on you, and that’s one way your university experience can really change your views.
We had a school assembly in 1983, where the headmaster wanted to bring everyone together to celebrate how wonderful the Tory victory had been, so he was training all those boys in that room, and they were all boys, to think in a certain way.
MH: You reference in your book the move away from the growing meritocracy of the 70s to a complete reversal of this in the 80s. Was this purely a product of the onset of a neoliberal society or was it a covert attempt by public schools to rebrand and preserve themselves?
RB: I think it was partly a result of national complacency as by the early 80s, a lot of people thought the threat from public schools was over, with grammar schools producing a series of non-public school prime ministers from Wilson onwards. These grammar school kids are also coming to dominate the media as well through the satirical programmes and everything. This complacency allowed the public schools to regroup like some terrible fungi waiting to come back. There is of course as well a direct correlation between underfunding of state schools and applications to private schools, because if your local schools are underfunded you look to a private solution. Education was underfunded throughout the Tory Governments, which allowed these private schools to build up their intakes.
MH: Do you ever feel personally responsible for other public school boys such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson?
RB: I don’t feel responsible but I feel ashamed when I look at them, because I recognise them as a kind of person I know and also the kind of person I might have been and that fills me with both shame and horror. What other people see as eccentricities, like with Boris Johnson, are actually really common among that certain type of person. These people are just following tracks that have been laid down for them and it’s not a surprise that they’re not unique, but if we’re not careful more of these people will come through.
This complacency allowed the public schools to regroup like some terrible fungi waiting to come back.
MH: I was thinking about this morning, that I wonder to the extent how different it is now that we have another Prime Minister who went to a public school in Winchester given that generational gap.
RB: I made the point in the book that I can only really speak to my generation and I started boarding school in the same year as Cameron and Johnson, in 1975. But I don’t think it’s that different or as different as the younger generation such as Sunak would have you believe. There are some things which changed after the 1989 Children Act, with just basic things like children had to have access to a telephone. At the same time there are some things which have never changed, given that you’re segregated from the rest of society and that you’re in this single-sex environment. What struck me when Rishi Sunak became Chancellor was that this was a man who didn’t ever have to worry about money, he’d never have actually had cash in his pocket for instance.
MH: I detect from your book that George Orwell was a strong influence on you, as he certainly was for me as well. What is your favourite work of his, or the one that was most influential on you?
RB: For this book at least the two works which were most interesting were the Road to Wigan Pier, in which Orwell as an Old Etonian is exploring his class prejudices and I recognised those same prejudices in the 80s, and the other one is 1984, which you can put alongside Such, Such Were the Joys as him working out this strong autocratic system in which he had grown up.
At the same time there are some things which have never changed, given that you’re segregated from the rest of society and that you’re in this single-sex environment.
MH: Is there any virtue in the modern day to a classical education as given at public schools, especially with the learning of classical languages?
RB: I think the simple answer is no, I mean for a very long time the classics have been a class indicator. You had to pass a common Latin exam to get into public secondary schools and so the prep schools had to teach Latin and one way to exclude people from public primary schools was because they didn’t have the Latin. When Johnson quotes Latin or when Rees-Mogg does it, they are just marking their class and by indication they want the same historical deference that people with that education historically had. The argument is obviously that Latin is a great brain trainer, but there are of course other things which can train the brain and which don’t have to be class markers in the same explicit way. The classics have a great history which ties to Imperialism, and the reason to study classics was of course that the Roman had this great Empire and therefore if you wanted to help out with the British Empire you had to know how the Romans managed theirs.
MH: In your book you mention that you went into teaching after finishing education. What do you think motivated you to remain in education?
RB: I didn’t remain in it very long. I got a job in TEFL in Hong Kong through a company that wanted to recruit Cambridge graduates to teach English to children in Hong Kong before the end of British rule. When I came back I went to work at the Dragon School in Oxford, because again I was the right sort of person, as they needed someone to teach cricket. When I went to the interview I knew exactly the sort of person they wanted who would be a safe pair of hands for their private school children. I got into it simply because it was easy, and that again is an example of the advantages of the trade and an example of how those pathways are just opened to you.
When Johnson quotes Latin or when Rees-Mogg does it, they are just marking their class and by indication they want the same historical deference that people with that education historically had.
MH: Do you think it’s fair, given past experience of public school prime ministers, for us to no longer trust public school graduates in high office, given how damaging the experience has been to personalities?
RB: I think given the social segregation in which they have grown up, there needs to be clear evidence that they have spent a lot of time making an effort to get to know the rest of the country. I think it’s clear among a lot of people high up in the Tory Party in the last 30 years that they have not made that effort. How can they look out for other people’s interests when they don’t know what those interests are? How can they care about education when they have no idea what state education is like? Topically, how can you have interest in the health service if you have no experience of it in your life? These people have been opting out of national public services so how can they really look out for those services if they’re of no relevance to them.
MH: Do you think the public school system is a self-promoting system of misery, whereby schoolmasters and teachers cling to the same ideas which governed the experiences that they themselves had of this system?
RB: The boarding school system is definitely a self-perpetuating system of psychological damage. The public school system itself is a self-perpetuating system of privilege which is just slightly different from that exact experience of boarding schools.