Last night, I watched a film about the Cambridge Spies. Unlike America, England in the 50s seems to have been distinguished by the extent to which people did not fear communist subversion. Jennifer Hart, a young aristocrat who gravitated towards the far left, claimed that MI5 would ask her to recommend bright graduates for jobs in the services and seemed to have little concern for their affiliations. If you came from the right families, and the right colleges, you were generally assumed to be a decent sort.
The film hinted darkly at potential motives of the spies, ranging from social conditions to sexual proclivities. It was not a time that showed the best of capitalism, that much is undeniable, and I think it is evident that homosexuality could incline one towards rebellion as, after all, one was classed as a natural rebel. A point that struck me, though, was when it was speculated that Blunt’s anti-authoritarian streak was nurtured by his loathing of the macho atmosphere of Marlborough College, with its emphasis on sporting prowess. I wonder how much of the social liberalism of the 20th Century was informed by resentment towards exclusion and abuse in British public schools.
It was “Mad Shelley” who faced taunting and violence at Eton as he nurtured his youthful radicalism, and significant progressives of the past century endured similar experiences. Lytton Strachey, among the more influential figures in the Bloomsbury Group, suffered harsh bullying at school thanks to the frail physique that made him unsuited for sports and labour. Gerald Brenan, too, hid in the library to escape his tormenters at Radley. Such, Such Were the Joys, meanwhile, reflected Orwell’s loathing of St. Cyprian’s – a prep school but one that led him to detest the “bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular” boys who outstripped other people “in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain”. This facts of the essay have been disputed but the perception remains. A hatred of hierarchy, order and authoritarianism can be stoked by few things more than public school bullies, and their victims are prepared to be receptive to alternatives to their values.
One suspects that the anti-authoritarian culture of the ‘60s had at least something to do with the resentment that young men felt towards the officials of their education. Peter Cook was joking when he said he got his “sense of injustice” from the caning he suffered at the hands of Ted Dexter, who was a prefect at Radley when he was young, but a good friend said he was “really angry” at the England batsman even in later life. Paul Foot, who, like his colleagues at Private Eye, was educated at Shrewsbury School, penned a scathing obituary of a sadistic master who would lash the bare buttocks of children, “quite unable to contain his glee”. There was a personal outrage, meanwhile, in the privately educated Lindsay Anderson’s portrayal of austere masters and thuggish prefects in his film if…, in which schoolboys amass weapons to massacre the staff of their public school.
Okay, correlation does not prove causation, and God knows whether the chicken or the egg was around before the other. Such men tended to hate school, and to be hated at school, because of their refusal to conform to the standards of their peers and masters. At the least, however, it is ironic that people who were frozen out of school did so much to exclude their bullies from the culture.