Top positive review
An excellent journalistic over-view in a highly-charged area where it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
25 May 2017
The strength of Stiff Upper Lip is that it is written by a journalist. Renton is readable, and covers all the bases (C19th flogging leading to death in extreme cases, celeb experiences, changes in the modern prep school, corporal punishment, boarding at 13 as opposed to boarding at 8, paedophile teachers, social class, girls' schools vs boys' ......)
This subject is so emotive that it is difficult to separate wheat from the chaff. Many loving parents who were themselves at boarding schools continue to use the schools for their children, large numbers of the establishment are being investigated and sent to prison for historic sexual abuse, the extreme cases of abuse leading to lifetime trauma are seen as the norm by the supporters of boarding schools and irrelevant exceptions by the defenders of it, the whole issue is suffused with British social class - so it is difficult for any book to be value-free. Parents are unlikely to admit to themselves, let alone others, that the choices they made for their children's education was the wrong one, and the author, quite naturally, regularly refers to the fact that after generations of boarding school education, he is extremely confident that finally he has successfully liberated his own children from boarding school trauma.
As one of the many who boarded from age 8 in the sixties, clearly such early separation at an early age, pretty unique in the whole world to the British Upper Class, must have affected us throughout our lives. This book helps make sense of it - despite all the limitations under which journalist books inevitably suffer. Alex Renton frequently refers to Boarding School Syndrome by Professor Joy Schaverien a therapist who has carved an expertise in helping people traumatised by boarding schools, and is able to compile an academic list of case histories fromher work in her book
The essence of the book is articles in the Observer which led to a torrent of feedback about boarding school experiences, most of it negative, and clearly there are very many who wrote in who would benefit from therapy. While many 'Prep School Survivors' have benefited from therapy, the book fails to answer the billion dollar question, whether a majority or a minority of people from boarding schools feel they have had a 'net' benefit from the experience - semi-permanent access to sport with people of your own age is surely many a young boy's dream?
(As with so many issues in the UK, social class underlies a lot of what is going on here, and though the book covers all the bases, it could better examine the data on Britain's self-perpetuating elite - public school journalists understand public school politicians who see eye to eye with public school business leaders who liaise with public school lawyers on business regulations which is then written about by a public school media etc. etc. And then all their kids are at school together and - hey presto - a self-perpetuating elite. The book would benefit from looking at all the data on this from the Sutton Trust and UK sociologists in an area where assumptions are made by so many. Another issue Renton leaves is that the early twentieth century had seen unbelievably horrible wars, where courage/abstemiousness/fitness/upper-lip-stiffness were needed by Brit armies hoping to 'win' so the tough military nature of these schools was relevant to what was then perceived as the national need)
This is an area where most of the literature is written by people with an axe to grind so it is difficult to separate truth from fiction.
Readers drawn to this subject would be people interested in the experience of private boarding schools (teachers, potential parents, former pupils etc.) and this book gives an excellent journalistic over-view in an area where it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.