BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT: The Biography of Anthony Chenevix-Trench
By Mark Peel
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Pentland Press: #16.99
AS headmaster of Eton, and then of Fettes, Tony Chenevix-Trench helped to shape the characters of some of the movers and shakers of modern Britain, including Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and William Waldegrave, the Cabinet Minister.
Of French Huguenot stock, from an Irish-based family that had achieved considerable renown in military and ecclesiastical circles, Chenevix-Trench was a product of the public school system and was to dedicate his life to it, to the exclusion of other experience, apart from a short stint as an Oxford don, though being headmaster of Eton was far more prestigious.
Undersized, evidently able to close his collar round his waist when a boy at Shrewsbury, C-T was a ferocious beater of the bare buttocks of boys in private, yet there was no evidence of homosexuality, the occupational disease of many public school masters. (C-T had a wife and four children.)
As he continued Eton's tradition for brutality, what was C-T thinking about as he wielded the cane in his study? His time on the Railway of Death in Siam, where the brilliant classicist (alphas in every paper in Greats at Oxford) had translated Housman's Shropshire Lad into Latin while breaking stone within reach of Jap guards who would beat a prisoner to death for daring to stop to draw breath?
As he flogged, C-T probably repeated an adored text, the Chorus Ode from the Antigone of Sophocles, which considers man's strange paradoxical nature, with his potential for both order and destruction. The only real safeguard for him and his city against his whims, the Chorus cautions, is the rule of law.
Some of the boys took on C-T and the system. An implacable opponent of corporal punishment, William Waldegrave co-wrote an article calling for the abolition of boxing at Eton. Faced with vociferous opposition from the boxing lobby, C-T vacillated and left the gloves on the fists of the schoolboy pugilists. He wanted to abolish the school dress, complaining: ``I want brilliant young men from the east end of London and how can I expect them to wear a tail coat?'' But he had to capitulate on that one too. He couldn't keep cannabis out of Eton in the relaxed 1960s, though he used to stalk the High Street looking for pushers, but when it came to punishing the users, he was soft.
C-T had a vision of a reformed Eton, stating in 1964, at the start of his headmastership: ``Before my time is up here, perhaps Eton won't be Eton any more. It may become a college for clever boys drawing on areas where there are not enough grammar school places, giving a first-class sixth-form training to fit them for university.''
In reorganising the curriculum, the Classics lover presided over the reduction of teaching in Classics, helping to set a national trend which has led to a disregard for grammar. C-T was relaxed chatting to boys, but ill at ease in the company of his employers.
On one occasion he was mistaken for the butler by a visiting grandee. He couldn't be allowed to take on the Establishment, and the way he was ruining a national institution became the talk of London dinner tables.
The end came in a row over the sacking of a housemaster. ``Support Neal, Ban Trench'' posters plastered all over the school urged. In August 1970 the ``retirement'' of the headmaster of Eton was announced.
``Where have you brought us to?'' Elizabeth exclaimed in horror to her husband when she first saw the Gothic spires of Fettes College, Edinburgh, C-T's last appointment and a humiliating step-down from Eton.
Fettes then had the reputation of being a tough school in financial difficulties, though it was cash-rich in its land holding.
Tony Blair, a pupil between 1966 and 1971, ``was among those who dared challenge hallowed Fettesian shibboleths,'' though Mark Peel does not tell us what the future Labour leader campaigned against - or if he was punished.
When I was head of English at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, I heard many stories about C-T brought back from rugby fixtures at Fettes.
Cupboards that had once contained classics primers now contained empty bottles. Playing host at a concert at Fettes, C-T had fallen asleep, his head resting on the shoulder of his guest, the headmistress of an Edinburgh girls' school.
There were stories of the wrong boys receiving corporal punishment from a man who didn't seem to know what day of the week it was.
The real power in a public school resides with the housemasters, and in 1978 two of them went to the Fettes governors with the complaints of appalled parents about the ferocity of the beatings administered to their sons.
The governors retained corporal punishment, with certain checks, but C-T was persuaded to announce his retirement, as from August 1979, as soon as possible. He died in June. A young boy ran about the school, screaming hysterically: ``Where is he? It can't be true.''
Mark Peel gives us an honest insight into the public school system with all its imperfections. C-T was a housemaster at Shrewsbury when Michael Heseltine, a disgruntled old boy, then an undergraduate at Oxford, wangled an invitation to speak at the Debating Society on the motion that This House Deplores the Public School System.
``Heseltine, the honorary proposer, dressed in fancy waistcoat, found much to criticise about the system, not least its monastic existence, its social exclusiveness, its addiction to corporal punishment, and its favoured status for muscular morons.''
Corporal punishment has virtually disappeared from independent schools, and there are vigilant rules regarding abuse of all kinds. Pupils from poor families enter through scholarships and the Assisted Places Scheme, and academic standards are rigorous.
C-T would not last a term in such a school today, where heads are business managers, overseeing big budgets, travelling abroad to recruit pupils in a competitive world where parents pay for results.
But there are redemptive aspects to this often disturbing biography.
Peel shows C-T's dedication to high academic standards, to the all-round development of a young person despite his use of the rod. I saw this in evidence when I was at Merchiston Castle, where time and the absence of discipline problems allowed a teacher to help a pupil realise his full potential, as fulfilling for the teacher as for the pupil.
The Land of Lost Content raises interesting issues about the continuing role of independent schools. The Labour Party is committed to abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme, but that in itself will not destroy the independent sector.
Tony Blair, who rebelled against aspects of life at Fettes, is sending his son to a grant-maintained secondary school outwith local authority control, which suggests that Blair, if and when he becomes Prime Minister, may favour for a model a type of school that draws on the best values of the independent and state sectors. Maybe Anthony Chenevix-Trench has left a mark, other than weals on buttocks.