My contribution to the debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’Posted: August 23, 2020 Filed under: Academia, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology | Tags: andrea torrodi, boris asafiev, carl dahlhaus, Challenging Performance, charles rosen, critical musicology, daniel leech wilkinson, edward alexander, golda schultz, graindelavoix, heinrich neuhaus, ian pace, ildar khannanov, intonazia, j.p.e. harper-scott, james robert tull, john ruskin, josef lhevinne, josquin, king's college, lars vogt, lawrence kramer, machaut, malcolm h. brown, mark brown, Matthew Arnold, messiaen, moonlight sonata, music notation, musical autonomy, musical meaning, new musicology, norman cazden, paderewski, paul mccreesh, peter donohoe, peter tregear, realism, richard taruskin, robert levin, romanticism, shostakovich, tom beghin, Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus, War of the Romantics, yevgeny yevtushenko 2 Comments
I posted earlier my contribution to one component of the City School of Arts and Social Sciences debate on the legacy of Stuart Hall, which I co-convened. Another event within the same online conference was an excellent debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’, convened by Natalie Tsaldarakis and chaired by Professor Alexander Lingas (City, University of London), which took place on Monday 22 June 2020. The panellists were Natalie Tsaldarakis (City, University of London), myself (City, University of London, Dr Izabela Wagner (University of Warsaw), Professor Ratko Delorko (pianist), Ben Johnson (tenor). The event was stimulated by a lively debate following a tweet from Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at King’s College, University of London.
The abstract for the debate said the following:
In this year of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary I propose to organise a public debate following the assertion by Dr. Leech-Wilkinson through social media that ‘classical music performance has nothing to say about current concerns’ taken together with his referenced work on the matter (Challenging Performance). Purportedly, the classical performing world as a whole offers approximations of a single idealised performance and rejects deviations, in the process becoming inaccessible to the audience, and finally culturally divorcing itself from current concerns. Thus, this public debate would welcome a balanced discussion about the role, meaning, and relevance of classical music.
Here is the link to the first episode of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance, which was one of the subjects for discussion.
It is important that practising professional musicians not working in academia were able to participate in this debate. As I indicate at the beginning of my contribution, academics frequently disparage musicians and the classical music world, but are rarely open to listening to criticism coming from the opposite direction. Leech-Wilkinson was invited to participate in this debate, but declined. One hopes that in the future he will be prepared to subject his views to more scrutiny from beyond circles of like-minded academics.
I am hoping that the video of the full debate will go online soon, and if so, I will post a link to it. Here is my contribution, of which I delivered a slightly abridged version in June.
It is common to hear musicologists passing judgement upon the work and other activities of classical musicians, sometimes in a deprecatory fashion, much less common to hear the reverse. There are various possible explanations for this; amongst the most plausible, I believe, would be that a good deal of contemporary musicology makes relatively little impact upon classical musicians in general, and so some find it insufficiently important or prominent to warrant comment. This is not a happy state of affairs, and there are many ways it can be demonstrated not always to have been the case. Certainly in the field of historical performance there has long been fruitful exchange between scholars and performers. More widely, those who simply draw upon relatively general literature on music to inform their music-making – I am thinking here of general histories or basic analytical work such as are aimed at those who are not academic musicologists, but have a sound general musical training – frequently imbibe the fruits of more detailed scholarly micro-studies which have informed the best of these more general texts. The writings on music of Charles Rosen, whose academic training was as a literary scholar rather than a musicologist, and who only ever held a few short-term fellowships in music departments, would nonetheless have been impossible without his wider knowledge of musicological scholarship, about which he sometimes wrote in more detail.
But while there is in my opinion still plenty of vital scholarship being produced which has at least the potential to be of value to practising musicians, there has been a counter-current for around three decades, a brand of scholarship which frequently seeks to indict numerous varieties of classical music in particular, charging it with colonialism, misogyny, elitism, or at best irrelevance. It is a bizarre spectacle to see such a number of musicologists – a disproportionate number of whom, as the musicologist Paul Harper-Scott has demonstrated, come from very privileged backgrounds in which a sound training in classical music can be taken for granted – spend a large part of their careers trying to do down this realm.
Now, I would never argue that classical music is wholly autonomous of issues of imperialism, gender, race, social division, by any means, but nor do I accept those arguments that would reduce that music primarily or solely to such factors, with a concomitant disdain for any suggestion of musical ‘autonomy’. This direction, far more prevalent in Anglophone musicology than that from elsewhere, has been steered by self-styled ‘new’ musicologists, some ethnomusicologists, sociologists of music, and others who would view the study of classical music as just one relatively small component of cultural studies, its ‘relevance’ to be gauged primarily on the basis of the size of its audiences, by which measure it would become a minor concern compared to commercial pop.
It is in this context that we should consider this now somewhat notorious remark of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, even though he is not really a figure commonly associated with the ‘new musicology’, nor with other of the factions I mentioned, and was for a long period primarily known as a scholar of medieval music. As I said, a key axiom of ‘new musicology’ (or its British near-counterpart, ‘critical musicology’) is a denial of the possibility that music can, let alone should, exhibit any autonomous features, those which cannot simply be explained by social, ideological or other determinants. Yet even if one believes this to be the case, demonstrating such a degree of determination is a difficult process, because of the nature of the medium, and attempts to do so often fall back upon hugely speculative associations. It is not difficult to see how some choral ode to a monarch is linked to aspects of feudalism and associated ceremony, but much harder to explain every note of it can be deduced from such an ideological viewpoint, even less why some such such works, but not others, have proved to have a lasting appeal long after such monarchs are consigned to history. To argue that Josquin’s masses or Bach’s sacred cantatas or Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus could only ever be meaningful or valuable to those committed to the particular religious beliefs associated with such works would be myopic in the extreme, and I maintain the same is true of much other music written for a particular social function or in a specific cultural context.
But such a view persists in sub-sections of musicology, and frequently takes another modified form, an active disapproval of music considered more abstract or autonomous. This view is not new, for sure, and is rooted in the nineteenth-century opposition between a more autonomous musical ‘romanticism’ and species of ‘realist’ music given to external depiction, such as fuelled opposing factions in the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin in particular has been quite unequivocal in his partisanship in this respect, drawing largely upon terminology largely developed in a musicological context by one of his nemeses, Carl Dahlhaus. Another American musicologist, Lawrence Kramer, concludes some extravagant hermeneutical readings on the basis of relatively slight evidence, but in particular is clear that the condition for music to be meaningful requires some external referent, a position which caused even Taruskin to balk somewhat.
In an article which was in part a critique of Kramer, Rosen said that ‘music has meaning but very little reference’, having previously argued that ‘It is not that music is more autonomous [than literature], but more ambiguous, slippery: it will not allow itself to be caught and pinned down like a novel or even like a poem.’ The same could be said of sculpture, or of dance, and for none of these art forms is this a weakness. But for Leech-Wilkinson, it would appear that it is, as revealed through his disparaging tweet copied above.
This attracted a fair amount of charged response from musicians such as Peter Donohoe, Paul McCreesh, Lars Vogt, as can be seen in the thread which followed it, and here:
It should be noted that Leech-Wilkinson’s comment was itself a response to another tweet by Donohoe bemoaning the lack of mention of classical music in a BBC news item on the grave financial implications of the virus upon the arts. Leech-Wilkinson’s response was widely regarded as a highly insensitive comment at a time when, due to COVID-19, classical musicians and classical music per se are fighting for their very economic survival. An established musicologist, Emeritus Professor at one of the most prestigious of British institutions, King’s College, University of London, occupies at the very least a position of relative power compared to those dependent for their livelihoods on the field he is berating. However, when this was pointed out, Leech-Wilkinson did issue a partial apology in response to McCreesh.
But what would it mean for classical performance to have ‘something to say about current concerns’, specifically the virus? I fear we will soon come across a whole host of lachrymose works with opportunistic titles or dedications, COVID-19 Requiem, ‘To the memory of those we lost to the virus’, Lockdown Lament, and so on, just as many composers rushed to produce works alluding to 9/11. In many cases the music employed might equally have been produced to order for any other traumatic event – and will be interpreted as communicating an emotion of sadness, and thereby ‘tell’ listeners that they should remember how sad this is. Any other critical or aesthetic judgement of the piece may then be viewed as demonstrating some lack of proper sensitivity. It is not difficult to imagine at some future date a theatrically-inclined composer instructing all musicians to wear face masks during their piece (independently of any medical need), while the composer will speak in earnest tones in a pre-concert talk in about the importance of preserving memory and the like.
This is not to say that there cannot be value in music which attempts some wider commentary upon traumatic events – a strong counter-example would be Shostakovich’s settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony – which generally avoids the type of mawkish sentimentality that can be found in many previous essays in the type of composition I have just described. Shostakovich’s work of course involves a text with vivid subject matter, and so hermeneutical readings are somewhat less contentious than has been the case for some of his purely instrumental works.
Ultimately, however, I do not accept that the primary purpose of music is to do social good, and reject prescriptive talk insisting that it must do so in order to be considered significant, as Leech-Wilkinson’s comment appears to imply. This view is not really so different from that of Victorian moralists such as Leech-Wilkinson’s compatriots John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold, who insisted on a socially edifying role for art. What all appear to fear is the possibility that art may have value through such attributes as opening up new realms of consciousness, sensation, emotion, in ways which cannot be understood simply as an expression of moral philosophy or political dogma.
It is far too early to ascertain any conclusive scholarly data on how and to what extent classical music or other art might have been important to people during the time of COVID-19. All I can point to is that there have been a great many making the most of the small number of streamed videos of concerts, operas and other musical events, and by no means just those in which one might find particular references which can be linked to the current situation.
For the purposes of this debate, I also listened through to Episode 1 of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance podcast. This features a mixture of frequent pleas as if from a beleaguered position, evoking some apparently sternly ‘policed’ environment of performance, which a range of comments suggesting an equal wish to ‘police’ this himself. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Leech-Wilkinson, while professing to wish for a more pluralistic culture of performance, is really arguing for one dominated by the aesthetics of the early twentieth-century. There are some quite bizarre claims, for example that only some historically ‘correct’ performances being allowed in conservatoires, which would be belied by conversations with those responsible for teaching historical performance at many conservatoires, frequently marginalised and dismissed by ‘star’ teachers.
Leech-Wilkinson’s examples of the Moonlight Sonata, claiming that both are acceptable in classical music circles, appear to contradict some of his earlier claims. No examples are given of these audience members who apparently hate something because it is ‘incorrect’. Also, when noting that Paderewski plays with the two hands desynchronised, Leech-Wilkinson argues as if this practice were not still employed by a fair range of pianists today, including Tom Beghin in the example he gives! My own observation of a large range of recordings through the course of the century shows that this practice never wholly disappeared, just that some came to use it rather more discreetly than was once more common. But even in Paderewski’s time, there were marked differences of degree as well. I myself regularly employ such a technique, not only between hands but also between parts in the same hand, but so do plenty of others, if not necessarily in such a stark fashion as Paderewski. Whether Paderewski’s style mirrors that of a century earlier, during Beethoven’s lifetime, we can never know for sure, but on the basis of other information which does exist about performance in the early nineteenth-century, it is safe to assume that there were a variety of different practices, as there are today. There is nothing to stop a Presto rendition of the Moonlight Sonata, as we hear on the podcast, if someone thinks it worthwhile – Leech-Wilkinson acts as his own ‘police’ when he declares ‘it works musically’, though I find his criteria narrow, by their rendering tempo as a secondary, even trivial, concern. He is perfectly entitled to his view, but so are some of the other reviewers and commenters on YouTube – it seems as if Leech-Wilkinson wants to ‘police’ them.
Would Paderewski be denied a conservatoire place today? I am not sure that can be answered unequivocally. Were critics and teachers somehow less censorious during Leech-Wilkinson’s golden age? I do not think so, as any survey of critical reception or pedagogical writings from musicians active during that time will show (obvious examples include those of Josef Lhevinne or Heinrich Neuhaus). Furthermore, many would have found themselves pigeonholed on national grounds, explicitly attacked for being Jewish, for being women, with many attributes of their playing directly linked to such things. Very few non-white performers were ever heard in the West, and the opportunities for performers from non-monied backgrounds to achieve performing careers were very considerably fewer. The repertoire performed was very much smaller – works such as Schubert’s late sonatas or many of Liszt’s works or for that matter Bach’s cantatas, save for a small few, were practically unknown. Also – and this is no small point – the number of those prepared to explore earlier instruments, rather than assume that the most modern ones always entailed ‘progress’ in all respects, was very much smaller than today, and those who did occupied a very marginal position in performing culture. We need to remember these aspects of early twentieth-century performing culture, every bit as ‘policed’ as our own if not more so, rather than view it through a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.
If looking for more possibilities than appear to work musically at the moment, Leech-Wilkinson might consider more of the phenomenally creative work going on in early music, for example the medieval ensemble Graindelavoix, the manic virtuosity of some of the Italian baroque groups, or the vast amount of embellishment enacted by Robert Levin in performances of Mozart Concertos, so relentless as to be mannered. I am sure that he is aware of these; the choice to ignore them is one reason I believe his contribution is essentially polemical in nature.
Many of the other points made in the podcast concerning beliefs and aesthetics constitute more straw man arguments. I could add something about where the boundaries might lie in terms of in some sense playing a score, but there is not really time for that. Leech-Wilkinson may have been open to a whole variety of performances of Machaut’s Mass, but I wonder how he would have felt about one in which each part were played on swanee whistles, with most pitches extremely unstable. Everyone has their limits.
Ultimately, I think the majority of this says more about Leech-Wilkinson’s personal projections than about classical music. Furthermore, I do not believe many musicians need his permission to arrive at performances with which they feel pleased and creatively empowered.
 See J.P.E. Harper-Scott, ‘Musicology, the Middlebrow, and the Question of Elitism’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, edited Ian Pace and Peter Tregear (London: Routledge, forthcoming).
 Richard Taruskin, ‘Speed Bumps’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), pp. 185-207.
 See in particular Carl Dahlhaus, Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music, translated Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Dahlhaus was not the first to theorise musical realism, for sure – one can find much earlier writings in English by Norman Cazden, ‘Towards a Theory of Realism in Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 10, no. 2 (1951), pp. 135-151, not to mention in the work on socialist realism of Boris Asafiev in the 1930s, specifically his Muzykal’naia Forma Kak Protsess (St Petersburg, 1930) and Intonazia (St Petersburg, 1947). A full translation into English of both of these (viewed as two volumes of a complete work) can be found in James Robert Tull, ‘B.V. Asaf’ev’s Musical Form as a Process: Translation and Commentary (Volumes I-III)’ (PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 1977); commentaries in English on both can be found in Malcolm H. Brown, ‘The Soviet Russian Concepts of “Intonazia” and “Musical Imagery”’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4 (1974), pp. 557-567; Gordon D. McQuere, ‘Boris Asafiev and Musical Form as a Process’, in Russian Theoertical Thought in Music, edited Gordon D. McQuere (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983), pp. 217-252; and Ildar Khannanov, ‘Boris Asafiev’s Intonatsia in the Context of Music Theory of the 21st Century’, Rasprave, vol. 44, no. 2 (2018), pp. 485-501. However, Dahlhaus went further than others before him in viewing nineteenth-century music in terms of a dichotomy of romanticism against realism, such as had long been applied to literature and the visual arts.
 See various of the essays in Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1990); Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1995) and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2002).
 Taruskin writes ‘If the value of music lies in the words and the pictures that it prompts, then why not cut out the middleman and go straight for the words and the pictures?’; Richard Taruskin, ‘The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music against Its Devotees’, in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2009), p. 349.
 Charles Rosen, ‘The New Musicology’, in Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 270. First published as ‘Music à la Mode’, New York Review of Books, vol. 41, no. 12 (23 June 1994), pp. 55-62, review of books by or edited by Lewis Lockwood, Elaine R. Sisman, James Webster, Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, Ruth A. Solie, Steven Paul Scher, Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.
 Since giving this paper, I found out that the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2020 ‘will also feature the South African soprano Golda Schultz and a newly commissioned work by Swedish composer Andrea Torrodi which responds to the pandemic and will include sounds from the lockdown’. See Mark Brown, ‘BBC Proms: details announced of festival behind closed doors’, The Guardian, 3 July 2020, at https://amp.theguardian.com/music/2020/jul/03/details-of-behind-closed-doors-bbc-proms-announced?CMP=share_btn_tw&__twitter_impression=true&fbclid=IwAR2FbCFbQCKxRPOixGvqasByCu5doAqt-fSfMLpWl2orpJjA1YMYgMqakjc .
 For a good study of this, see Edward Alexander, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and the Modern Temper (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973).
 Josef Lhevinne, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, with a new foreword by Rosina Lhevinne (New York: Dover, 1972); Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing, translated K.A. Leibovitch (London: Kahn & Averill, 1993).
 This is a subject I pursue in my ‘Notation, Time and the Performer’s Relationship to the Score in Contemporary Music’, in Unfolding Time, edited Darla Crispin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 151-192.
 About which he authored a book: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Machaut’s Mass: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter DonohoePosted: January 11, 2019 Filed under: Culture, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology | Tags: beach boys, bob dylan, canons, charlotte c gill, classical music, deskilling, franz liszt, gary tomlinson, georgina born, haydn, jimi hendrix, mozart, nicholas cook, peter donohoe, popular music, populism, simon zagorski-thomas, stella duffy, susan mcclary 6 Comments
The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.
The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.
I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).
The following is Donohoe’s response:
This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’
It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.
However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.
By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?
Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.
The following is part of my response:
The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:
‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’
Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.
‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”
And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.
‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?
Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’
Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.
‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’
Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.
Music into Words – Morley College, Sunday February 12th, from 1:15 pmPosted: February 6, 2017 Filed under: Academia, Higher Education, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology | Tags: adrian ainsworth, frances wilson, ian pace, kate romano, katy hamilton, leah broad, morley college, music into words, neil fisher, peter donohoe, simon brackenborough, tom hammond 1 Comment
This coming Sunday, February 12th, will see a mini-conference, the second major event organised by Music into Words, whose declared aim is ‘to bring together all kinds of writers about classical music – journalists, musicians, academics, bloggers and music lovers – to share their perspectives and discuss common issues in a positive, inclusive and friendly environment.’
This event will take place at The Holst Room, Morley College, London SE1, from 1:15 to 5 pm on Sunday, February 12th, 2017, and I will be on the panel. Other participants are world-leading pianist Peter Donohoe, Deputy Arts Editor of The Times Neil Fisher, writer, musician and researcher Katy Hamilton, music researcher and journalist Leah Broad, conductor Tom Hammond, clarinettist, composer and creative producer Kate Romano, and writer Adrian Ainsworth. It will be hosted by Frances Wilson (whose blog Cross-Eyed Pianist is here – you can read my interview with Frances here) and founder and editor of Corymbus.co.uk, Simon Brackenborough. Tickets, which are selling fast, can be booked here. Fees are £10 + £0.75 booking fee through Early Bird, £5 + £0.58 booking fee for students.
The order of events will be as follows:
1.15pm – arrival/registration and welcome
1.30 – Panel 1:
Speakers: Katy Hamilton, Adrian Ainsworth & Tom Hammond
with Peter Donohoe and Neil Fisher
Followed by audience Q&A/discussion
3.00 – Tea break (the refectory Morley College will be open for refreshments)
3.30 – Panel 2:
Speakers: Ian Pace, Kate Romano, Leah Broad
Followed by audience Q&A/discussion
5pm – event ends.
My own contribution will concentrate on the thorny questions of the differences between journalistic and scholarly writing, and in particular the use of jargon (as distinct from technically precise or conceptually rich language), and its use for a play of power in order to mystify academic writing and render it artificially inaccessible. My short talk will be accompanied with hand-outs giving some examples of the phenomenon I describe, and of writing for which these categories are ambiguous. This is designed to encourage a wider discussion on the purpose of writing on music carried out in an academic context, drawing on my own parallel experiences as musicologist, professional musician, and blogger on music and other subjects. Some of my earlier writings on this blog relate to this subject, including my posts on scholarship and new music, the need for musicology to distinguish itself from promotional writing, the question of how much some musicologists are vested in their subject, whether it is acceptable for scholarly writing on music to draw upon monolingual sources, and on deskilling and musical education.
I am very pleased to have been invited to take part in this mini-conference, and hope many will come to lend their input to what is sure to be a fascinating series of debates.
Extraordinarily powerful article by Alex Renton on the abusive world of British boarding schoolsPosted: May 4, 2014 Filed under: Abuse, Public Schools | Tags: alan doggett, alex renton, ashdown house, boarding schools, colet court, independent schools, peter donohoe, private schools, public schools, spotlight, st paul's school 9 Comments
When I was at school, education could go hang. As long as a boy could hit a six, sing the school song very loud and take hot crumpet from behind without blubbing. (Lieutenant George in Blackadder Goes Forth)
Today’s Observer contains an incredibly powerful article by Alex Renton on the culture of abuse and brutality in Britain’s boarding schools, focusing on his own experiences at Ashdown House. I have blogged at length on the case of Alan Doggett at Colet Court school, as well as of course of abuse in specialist music schools; I would most strongly recommend for anyone interested in the subject looking through the range of articles collected on the Spotlight blog, and especially the reports by Andrew Norfolk at The Times alleging that teachers at a whole 130 of Britain’s independent schools have been implicated in sex crimes; at Colet Court and St Paul’s Schools alone eighteen teachers are being investigated (including some from recent times).
But beyond the obviously wrong phenomenon of sexual abuse of pupils by teachers, these schools facilitate and nurture a culture of abuse, vicious bullying, violence, and ruthless determination to get to the top and trample on whoever might get in one’s ways, with little place for empathy, compassion, collectivity and much else. Whilst it may be harder today for schools to cover up sexual abuse, I have seen little reason to believe all the other types of abuse and cruelty, whether from teachers towards pupils, or pupils towards other pupils, are necessarily much diminished. Alex Renton captures some of this culture; I plan to blog more on this subject, and the insidious effect upon British society of the public school system and the apartheid-like model of education it entails when time permits.
For now, though I want to offer one thought for consideration: the majority of those who study or have studied at these schools, two options are available, those of perpetrator or victim. Either (a) one can assume upon oneself the values of those schools and their associated cultures, and become a type of neo-fascist oneself, or (b) hold out personally against them, and end up becoming a victim and fucked-up for life. There will be a few who manage to eschew either option, but for many, the choice is stark. The advantages of (a) enable the brutalising culture of the public schools to be passed down from generation to generation, and to inform the workings of many of the higher echelons of society, most of them dominated by public school pupils. Some people who have served in the military might naturally have absorbed some ruthless and dehumanising values as well, but often linked to a sense of camaraderie and understanding of the importance of collective purpose. In my experience, those latter qualities are mostly absent from those who have absorbed the lessons of public schools. This very educational system serves to enshrine and perpetuate the callousness and brutalism of the British ruling classes; I can see it in written in the faces of more than a few leading politicians.
Abuse in Britain’s boarding schools: why I decided to confront my demons
For generations of boys, sexual abuse was part of the everyday cruelty of boarding school. In this painfully honest report, writer Alex Renton confronts the demons of his past at Ashdown House, where some of Britain’s most powerful men were also educated – and reveals the scale of the outrage about to engulf the private education system
The Observer, Sunday 4 May 2014
If Ashdown House’s pretty Georgian facade reminds you of Washington’s Capitol and the White House that’s because the architect, Benjamin Latrobe, had a hand in those, too. It is an excellent look for the entrance to a temple of education: it speaks of classical wisdom and the rule of reason. We boys weren’t allowed to go in that way, of course.
Today, 40 years since I last saw the school, we step in through Latrobe’s columned porch as though entitled. Nothing can touch us: we’re parents. Ruth, my wife, grips my hand. A friend who works in post-traumatic stress disorder warned us, quite gravely, of the risks when people visit scenes of past troubles; of hyper-arousal – sweats, nausea, high heart-rate. Or the opposite, hypo-arousal: a state of lethargy, a feeling of unreality. But I’m fine. Pulse steady. People hurt you, not places.
There were no ghosts, no shocks as we toured the corridors and classrooms. I have not been looking forward to the smell. I could summon the brew: disinfectant, boy sweat, meat stew, chalk dust. An incense of misery. But it is gone. There is no chalk these days.
It is the details from other senses that clamour. The give of a floorboard in a corridor, the sunlight through a window, the shape of a wooden refectory bench, an echo of children’s voices. We enter a cosy girls’ dormitory where the low black beams were, suddenly, shockingly familiar. And the brick fireplace. This used to be headmaster “Billy” Williamson’s study. I’d scrutinised those bricks, the way they sat upon each other, many times over those five years. Waiting for his flap-jowled face to stop shouting and get to business: detail the punishment or the beating.
Just down the corridor, two worn wooden steps led to the tiny dormitory where I slept in my first term at the school. I and the other eight-year-olds would turn our faces into our mattresses, pull pillows over our heads. If you wept out loud, the 10-year-old dormitory captain and his deputy threatened to whip you with a belt. That was their prerogative, they told us on the first night, a few hours after our mothers had extracted promises from them to look after their little ones.
The last seems such a cliché of boarding school life – surely the tearful mummy pleading with the bullies is in Tom Brown’s School Days? Or a Michael Palin sketch? – I wonder if I’ve made it up. The memories are blurred. I’m shocked how few of them there are. And telling and retelling the few stories that stand out in bright light carries risks – they gather accretions. Now when I meet men who were at the school I tend to check detail obsessively – He was called what? That happened when? – as if without reaffirmation what was real might slip into the darkness. Old Ashdownians sometimes tell me things that make my jaw drop.
But I do know that after the half-term break that first autumn we came back to a terrifying dressing-down, delivered under those low beams in the headmaster’s study. One of us new boys – I still don’t know who – had complained about the regime in Dormitory V to his parents. This was the cardinal sin. What happened in school stayed in school. Billy punished us all. We didn’t tell tales again.
Some of the key locations have shrunk absurdly small: the brick chapel where Billy gripped the Bible and harangued us with the backing of his three trustiest prefects: Jesus, the Holy Ghost and God. Just as tiny now is the assembly room where, daily, 120 boys aged seven to 13 were ranked on wooden benches. Here the diatribes, the mass punishments and public humiliations happened. This was where he would detail who had cried under the cane the previous night: “Jones and Smith took it like gentlemen. But Renton blubbed like a baby.”
That was then. Now the site is the “play-room”, with a cushioned chill-out area adjoining. The larky 12-year-olds playing pool round a table seem to take up half the space. In the corridor I find a familiar picture, a print of the Pietro Annigoni portrait of the Queen, done after her coronation. She is young, beautiful and brave. I remember I used to watch her during assembly. I would wonder what she would do if she knew how unjustly we, her young subjects, were being treated. I’d will her to descend, glorious like the first Queen Elizabeth, and order Billy and his staff to the Tower. Or, like Boudica, ride down on the teachers and the prefects, slashing them to bits with the spinning swords on her chariot wheels.
The school has prospered since, as has the whole industry: now there are 22 full-time teaching staff. In my time there were only 10 or 12, some of them just graduated, and I wonder how many of them had any qualification at all. There’s a new teaching block, a purpose-built canteen, a swimming pool and a kindergarten.
Lost in this warren is the classroom where, one afternoon when I was nine or 10, a hated and violent young teacher I will call Mr X slipped his hand into my corduroy shorts and tugged at my penis. This was a known hazard – in return Mr X gave you a Rowntree’s fruit gum. Mine was a green one, nobody’s favourite. Is this a memory I can trust? No doubt. I can feel my face against the rough tweed of his jacket, scratchy.
As the visit goes on, corridor after corridor, a sadness grows in my chest. Afterwards, utter exhaustion. I’m very glad, though, to see these rooms now full of light and character.
Especially that. Where our walls were bare and the only softness the identical candlewick bedspreads, now there are teddy bears and family photos; posters of ponies and Chelsea footballers. Peering into classrooms, the children are lively – unnaturally polite, compared with the ones at my daughter’s state primary – but no one looks unhappy. As if they would. I realised I’d sort of expected that. Little rooms full of children with faces like The Scream.
After the tour, there are coffee and biscuits – we’ve come posing as prospective parents – with the headmaster and his wife, a couple in their 40s. They seem kind and practical. We chat about how boarding schools have changed and who from my days stays in touch. Who sends their own children to Ashdown. This stiff conversation is interrupted by a dazed little child who has brought a letter to be sent to his parents.
The headmaster calls him “my dear boy”: when the child stammers what he wants and leaves, the headmaster explains a little, adding that winter is a bad time of year in a new school. We make sympathetic faces. I say that if my daughter comes to the school, she would like not to board immediately. The headmaster nods. That’s fine. Weekly boarding is good, though an initial period of no contact with parents is for the best. One of the boarders, he tells us, is just six years old. That’s been fine, too. His wife nods. At Ashdown now there is, the brochure reassures you, a “warm, kind and trusting home-from-home environment”. No hugs, though.
The little boy’s letter to Mummy, the scrawled envelope barely legible, lies between us on the coffee table among the porcelain like something raw. I remember how the teachers would inspect our letters home, and how we were punished if found to have complained to our parents. In a school of endless rules, offences against omerta were perhaps the most seriously policed of all. Of the platitudes from the current headmaster, only one impresses me: the school likes to encourage “independent thought”. That is a change. This is a very different place altogether.
The last time I set foot in the school was the day I left, aged 13. In the 40 years since, Ashdown has loomed large – it was, as they say, “the making of me”, for better and for worse. But I had not thought of revisiting. Except once, aged 15. Then a group of boys at Eton and I had discussed whether we might charter a mini-bus and visit the grave of the newly deceased Billy Williamson, to dance on it. It never happened. But the thought was good.
With the headmaster’s death, Ashdown House and its demons began to fade. A young teacher, one of the decent ones, became headmaster, introduced girls and abolished the cane. The stories of baroque cruelty and insane adult behaviour became jokes, used to bond with people who’d been through the system at other schools. There was a time when the stories were fun to use to horrify girls, and another when they could serve to excuse your own emotional screw-ups. They were war stories: they made us feel special.
Sympathy in the wider world was limited. It still is. We were toffs whose parents had paid for the luxury of having their children abused – we were hardly the survivors of the care homes of north Wales or Catholic church vestries. We were not noisy: we kept calm and carried on, as trained. Some of us would later untangle the memories in therapy.
There has clearly been some demand for that. By the 1990s this odd corner of the British ruling class’s mechanisms had become a subject of academic study and the grounds of psychiatric careers. Now Boarding School Syndrome has a symptomology, “survivors’ groups” and it’s a thriving area for counsellors and psychotherapists. Private, of course. Money buys you entry: a friend who works in psychological trauma in the NHS says she’s never come across this particular field.
The story of the British boarding school and its experiences have been widely written, as one might expect. Reading the raw accounts in the recent press and on abuse survivors’ web fora I find myself flinching a little at how nicely turned some of the accounts are: like the lesser poets of the First World War, the emotional effects are just a touch self-conscious, the result, probably, of too much Wordsworth and Keats in the Fourth Form. Strange, to educate people to go out and be cannon fodder, but also to describe the experience like a Romantic.
Most of the professional memoirists seem to have ended up accommodating their boarding school experience: “Hell, but it made me the man/woman I am.” Some who loathed their school days end up endorsing the system. Among these are Winston Churchill and Richard Dawkins. In his new autobiography, the scientist reckons the “mild paedophilia” he encountered was of its time and thus acceptable. ‘I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours,” he has said.
Far from condemning, others acknowledge they owe their careers to the emotional catastrophe of their education. Generations of male, middle-class British comedians’ currency is the dry, dark humour that comes straight from the coping mechanisms of upper-class suffering. The other day, Eddie Izzard spoke of how he was sent to board at seven, shortly after his mother’ death. He “cried relentlessly for a year… My housemaster would help me along with beatings when he could fit them in.”
That brand of wry fatalism is characteristic. My wife Ruth did not go to boarding school. She says she cannot stand it when people who did talk through their experiences in “endless infantile grim jokes”. But modern British culture has swallowed the boarding school story and digested it, caring not very much. It was an anachronism, a hangover of the imperial age, and in the 1990s, it looked as though the boarding schools were dying out. Numbers of boarders were collapsing.
Then new money and changing fashion brought about a curious revival. Another generation of the rich started sending their children away again. Once again, the little ones demanded it, they said, because of the books they had been reading. Only this time, the propaganda wasn’t Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers or Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings but JK Rowling (who did not go to boarding school and doesn’t send her own children to one). Perhaps Harry Potter revived the English boarding school: numbers of boarding children have stayed stable since 2000 and through the recession. There’s about 70,000 of them. As far as I can work out, around 4,000 of those are 10 or younger.
Now, of course, the country has had four years of its own experience of the effects of boarding school. The majority of the 2010 coalition cabinet were privately educated, most of them as boarders. Boris Johnson went to my schools – Ashdown and then Eton, and Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip, went to Ashdown before going to Rugby. Of course, there’s never been a government, even a Labour one, in which privately educated people were not among the major players. But, as critics like to point out, this clutch of male ruling politicians embodies the grand Victorian public school virtues – or failings – more than most: suppression of emotion, devotion to the team, distrust of women and minimal empathy for the weak and ordinary.
And so it is interesting that so many senior politicians in government went to boarding schools, places that, by definition, practise on young children the techniques of “attachment fracture” – a psychiatrist’s phrase – that are key to removing early emotional ties and building esprit de corps. Of those politicians quite a few – including the chancellor, the prime minister and deputy prime minister, the Mayor of London and the Attorney General – were at private schools where teachers from their era have been accused or convicted of sexual abuse. The coalition is quite an advert for the old way.
For two decades there has been talk of an enormous abuse scandal brewing behind the facade of the 20th-century British private education system. Last December the story sprang to life. A long-running case against Peter Wright, the 83-year-old former headmaster of a school in Buckinghamshire called Caldicott, came to an end. Wright was found guilty of 12 counts of sexual abuse: one of the piquant details was that Nick Clegg had been joint head-boy at the school; his colleague, the other head boy, was one of the principal witnesses against Wright.
He had first been charged 10 years’ earlier. A judge threw out the case because the offences were “historical”. When the trial that finally went ahead in 2013, some of the 1960s allegations were not admitted. (Wright has now been jailed for eight years, having been found guilty of 10 indecent assaults and two counts of gross indecency, between 1959 and 1970). At least 30 pupils were involved, according to one newspaper. Five other teachers were implicated, one of whom threw himself under a tube train before the trial. One Caldicott teacher, sacked in 1972, went on to teach and abuse at the Harrodian School: the law did not catch up with him until 2003. Another abused children at Caldicott and a school in Shropshire in the 1970s and 1980s and was finally jailed this February. There is, not for the first time, talk of a “ring” of paedophile teachers operating in the 1970s in prep schools and public schools.
With the Wright case done, the principle that ancient allegations could be successfully prosecuted was established. It was certain more would follow. In mid-January the Times’s hard-working reporter of child abuse scandals, Andrew Norfolk, wrote of a “surge in criminal prosecutions” and named 130 private schools who have been or are now subject to similar allegations. That was 5% of all in the UK. It included 50 in the independent schools’ premier league, the Headmaster’s Conference. Twenty of them were feeders to Eton. In the same story, Norfolk pointed out that teachers from 62 different private schools had been convicted of sex crimes against children in the past 20 years – 18 convictions since 2012. Norfolk called it “stealing their childhoods”.
This all passed me by, until, last December, a story appeared in the Times naming Ashdown House under the headline “Prep school faces claims of physical and sexual abuse.” The Daily Mail was gripped, because Ashdown in the 70s had not just been the school of Boris Johnson but also the actor Damian Lewis and the Queen’s nephew David Linley. Linley was my contemporary – in the Mail he was quoted reminiscing without any affection about the “Dickensian” school. He remembered Billy Williamson caning his whole class for one child’s “fairly petty” offence.
The old man did like a big gesture. I remember him – huge, red-faced, ranting – threatening to cane the entire school unless a boy owned up to some particularly infuriating crime. I think it was a broken window. An older Ashdownian told me Billy had actually once attempted that feat – giving 120 boys “six of the best” in one afternoon. Despite being a keen golfer with a good swing, which he practised on the Royal Ashdown course most weekends, Williamson ran out of steam. He gave up having got through hardly half of them.
But the new allegations were about more than caning, which was a legal practice in independent schools in England and Wales until 1999. (About the same time, the independent schools for the first time became subject to full state inspection.) The Mail story talked of “horrific attacks” by two teachers in the early and mid-70s. The paper had been leaked details of a campaign for compensation started by former pupils, in part because they were infuriated that a complaint about abuse made in 2003 had been brushed aside. This group had been taken on as no-win-no-fee clients by the solicitors representing some victims of Jimmy Savile.
Through friends who had also been at Ashdown, I got more detail. The complaints, from a group a few years younger than me, were indeed horrific: sexual acts much more intrusive than Mr X’s pathetic bribe and fumblings. There was talk of blackmail and predatory older pupils encouraged by abusive teachers. That chimed with my adult perception of the bizarre sexualisation of life at Ashdown, especially the system of reward and discipline. At least two children I knew who had been given authority over younger kids used it to force sexual contact – Williamson seemed to have turned a blind eye. There was talk of connections with house masters at Eton, to which Ashdown fed pupils. There had been at least one suicide. There were more teachers in the complaint.
The Mail’s story quoted from an email that the former Ashdown pupils were passing around: “The abuse that occurred continues to have a dramatic effect on a number of lives, with regards to ongoing relationships, career and treatment for dealing with the psychological damage it has caused. Therefore we are seeking compensation with regards to a civil case against the school.”
I was very shocked when I read this – more than I could easily understand. Ashdown had had a dramatic effect on my life, too, but I had thought it was done. I didn’t feel any need for revenge or compensation for what had happened 40 years ago. I didn’t think I needed catharsis, either – I had long ago let light onto what I experienced at Ashdown. I was open about it with lovers, friends and family. I was, as much as I could hope to be, at peace.
But I realised I owed support to others who might need revenge, relief from the history – or money. There was another pressing need. The abusers had all been young men, if my memory could be trusted. They could still be teaching. Why hadn’t I acted on Mr X years ago? I could not explain that.
The first thing I did, though, was to email the Daily Mail story to my parents. This was not revenge. That my career at Ashdown was a mistake that they deeply regretted was something we had established a long time ago. If there was anything to forgive, I had forgiven it. I know they loved me. They were victims of a terrible fraud.
Besides, the sexual abuses were, in my version of the story, just detail: the real narrative was of five years of deliberate crushing of our individuality, the suppression of emotional freedom. Sexual bullying seemed just a part of the violence and cruelty that was the basic currency of the school and hundreds like it; the tools with which it squashed our little forms into the mould. Out of it would come upper-class Englishmen and women – ready to go and run an Empire or, at least, take charge of lesser mortals with normal feelings.
So went my thinking. Nothing unfamiliar: it has been said by British liberals from George Orwell onwards. Psychiatrists I have spoken to agree that, yes, while sexual and physical abuse is the headline grabber (and what makes criminal cases), real damage is done to children and adults by long-term psychological abuse. A child may recover from a blow, but not from the withdrawal of love and the denial of safety – the “complex trauma” child psychologists talk of. Comfy with my understanding, I was someone who had dealt with his schooldays.
But then I got an email back from my mother. What she wrote stripped away my reading and intellectualising, like so many useless bandages. She said I had told her about Mr X.
Then I cried. Because that summoned a picture: a small boy, nervous, excited in his new clothes and tie, ready to drive to Ashdown House on a September morning in 1969. My little brother and sisters gathered round to wave me off. A few weeks before I’d sat up late to watch the astronauts land on the moon on the TV. I wanted to be an adventurer, too. This journey seemed like the beginning. I was as brave and trusting as only the innocent can be. I never really trusted an adult again, not until I was one myself.
My mother’s email upended my 52-year-old’s view of my Ashdown self. I’d thought that September day was the last of my bravery. That I had been crushed, totally. In a privately published book of appreciation given to Billy Williamson for some anniversary shortly before his death in 1976, there is a selection of some pupils’ prize-winning work. It includes a story I wrote when I was 12.
It’s a plain account of a self-centred little boy who is given a rabbit for his birthday. The novelty wears off, the boy, careless and cruel, fails to clean the hutch or feed the rabbit. His mother warns him to look after it better; he punishes the rabbit by throwing mud and stones at it. When eventually it dies, he weeps as he buries it. But then a few days later, when a fox digs up the rabbit’s corpse, he doesn’t notice. “Nor were the flowers on its grave ever renewed,” is the last phrase.
That story of the selfish little boy and the all-knowing adults has long seemed to me as good a totem as any to show that the school had done the job it was paid for. Ashdown had broken me, as you do when you train an animal, and then drilled me until I was a suitable citizen. But my mother’s revelation showed I had kicked back. In fact, I had broken the most important of all of Billy’s rules. I had told tales out of school. l specifically said a teacher was touching me in a way I didn’t like and that I “hated” him. And she had gone straight to the school to raise hell with the headmaster’s wife.
That may explain Mr X’s disappearance shortly after (to teach at another school, according to the Ashdown School Bulletin of that year). It may explain the way the headmaster targeted me in the following years, singling me out in front of the school as a fraud, a failure and a perpetrator of “filthy behaviour”. But it gave me a new vision of the brave little boy who wouldn’t be cowed by Billy Williamson: the boy who spoke out.
And so I thought of those others, today and in the past, at Ashdown and all the other schools who wanted to speak up. I thought of the children in council care homes, in borstals and mental institutions, who over the years were left in thrall to adults without protection. I thought of the ruined marriages, the let-down kids, the suicides, the stunted and miserable lives – the great swathe of collateral damage that psychological trauma leaves. I thought of all the kids taken from their homes too early and thus denied, as the writer David Thomas once put it, the chance to love.
I thought particularly of the 45,000 under-10s in the UK who are in local authority care today. Of the 2,000 or so kids nine or younger – too young, according to any child psychologist – whose parents are now sending them to boarding school. For convenience, or notions of status, or just because they did not love them enough, to taking a mad gamble with their children’s emotional health, with their lives. And I thought of all the head-teachers who have protested that schools risk being closed by the legal actions, that that was then and this is now, that the abuses of the old boarding schools could not possibly happen today. I decided to go and see Ashdown. And I decided to talk to the police.
If you have a story you would like to share anonymously, email Alex Renton (firstname.lastname@example.org) in total confidence. If you have been affected by the issues in this story, call the National Association for People Abused in Childhood free on 0800 085 3330 from landlines, 3, EE, Vodafone and Virgin mobile phones, or 0808 801 0331 from O2, EE and Vodafone mobile phones.
I would also recommend reading Peter Donohoe’s memories of his years at Chetham’s here, here and here and especially the item on bullying here.