“Queer as a coot” – changing attitudes to sex in English boarding schools
As the comparatively innocent ten year old son of Christian missionaries, I found myself sent in 1956 to an all male boarding school in Sussex. I had to share, for instance, a long dorm and its malodorous “lav ends” with 25 other male adolescents. (I remember the surprise in that dorm when I knelt down to pray beside my bed on my first night there – an act of Tom Brown-like foolhardiness never repeated.) I think that, in such a tough atmosphere I must missed my mother and sisters dreadfully because I spent all the free time I could in the Art School under the motherly wing of the only female teacher on the staff – the wonderful Miss Nell Todd with her everchanging hair colour and boundless sense of fun and creative possibilities. Incredibly she had been allowed to import a corner of bohemianism into that otherwise over-regulated male dominated atmosphere. All the other teachers were men. Many were post-war survivors looking, I now suspect, for a settled non-traumatic civilian life. Some of them were undoubtedly gay,- or “queer” as we nastily used to call it. Most kept their predilections discreetly under cover but if they ever allowed them to show became subject to a barrage of self-righteous persecution. “Come over to the chapel and I’ll show you how to play on the organ” one music teacher, who rapidly disappeared from our lives, was supposed to have joked. In truth I think that, in an atmosphe re that was all too typical of English “public” schools at the time, our feelings towards sex were totally confused. The approved attitude was a kind of exaggeratedly hearty cheering on of anything heterosexual. I remember the semi-pornographic “Forever Amber” being read to us as a bedtime story by one of our more macho monitors. Further unreliable information came to us from “dirty” jokes. We encouraged each other to leer lustfully at the poor young Italian maids who worked in the kitchen. My friend Harris (even best friends were known to each other only by surname) even claimed to have a real girl friend at home in the holidays. For a short while, the school employed a pioneer Health Instructor, one Doctor Matthews, to give us basic Sex Education, perhaps to “put us straight”. Friend Harris and I were thrown out of the first lecture having a hysterical fit of the giggles at the sight of the Doc’s first slide – a full frontal female. (Years later we again got into trouble for letting down the tyres of a coach which had brought a local girls school to have ‘mixed’ dancing lessons with us). But, despite such hetero cockiness, the feelings and tensions in those boarding houses were predominantly homosexual. Much of it remained repressed, or “platonic” as we learned to call it, – crushes on girl-faced trebles in the choir or hero worship of older boys. But some of our proto-homosexuality, to judge by noises overheard in the dorm, was active too. I remember going for a run and coming across two “queers” lying naked and loosely entwined on a rug in an unfrequented part of the wood; the picture remains flashed on my (shocked?) mind as an image of beauty and tenderness. Confused and repressed attitudes towards Sex were perhaps general to the British post-war populace of the Fifties. I associate the many scandals of the time, Profumo and Vassal and the Beaulieu scouting scandal and many others, with grubby microdot pictures in those News Chronicle newspapers which we were allowed to pore over (and paw over) spread out on our dayroom tables.
Skip on some 40 years. Towards the end of my teaching career I found myself living in a State boarding school in Norfolk which had a totally different sexual “vibe” from my earlier experience of boarding. For a start it was co-educational. The boarding houses had been designed in the 1960s to accommodate girls and boys in separate houses but by the time I arrived the houses were all co-ed, – boys’ and girls’ dorms on separate sides of the “house” but sharing most of the dayrooms, classrooms and other daytime facilities. I was told that this “mixing” had made an immediate difference to the pleasantness of the place. There was less bullying and bitching and posturing; a softer, kinder atmosphere prevailed. Some of the older girls, for instance, were good at befriending and looking after the younger ones. Also the fact of being in constant face to face contact with the opposite sex, being on dining tables with each other, for instance, seemed to take some of the sting and steaminess and silliness out of their dealings, making for a more rounded and realistic appreciation of the “opposite” sex. (I was delighted to find on a recent visit to my old school that similar co-educational arrangements had long ago been made there too, as in alot of once “single sex” establishments). The more relaxed atmosphere of my Norfolk co-ed boarding school toward “mixed sexes” seemed to make for a more relaxed attitude toward sexual differences in general. Some of the most gifted and sympathetic teachers on that staff were known to be gay, one even living with his partner on site. Staff and students alike seemed to enjoy the company and contribution of those (few) brave young students who seemed to be working out their sexual identities as gay or lesbian. They were neither feared nor persecuted. Indeed they seemed at that school (as in the best of modern society?) to be appreciated as contributing with disproportionate generosity to the fun and culture of the community as a whole. Nor were heterosexual couples on the staff necessarily expected to be conventionally married. Vicky and I had spent an uncomfortable year in the 1970s dreading being found, while we occupied one of the staff houses, to be “living in sin”; but in that Norfolk boarding school several teaching couples were openly “living together” – as the accepted custom now increasingly is.
I tend to think that being at boarding school is always a less satisfactory preparation for life than being at a day school. Our own children went to a “common or garden” local Comp, where I trust that they benefitted from the experience of mixing with the full spectrum of future citizenry. But it is heartening to think that the children who do have to go to boarding school – for some it is a necessary substitute for unsatisfactory home relationships – can nowadays enjoy a more “open”, less confusedly judgemental experience.