I was an Eton teenage bully
...and it never did me any harm, says Hugh Peto
I was an Eton teenage bully. I was also a physical weakling. I, or rather we, would instigate 'hate campaigns' against the more feeble boys in our year. The reasons? Croome, we decreed, was common. Gent, we decided, was gay. Penfold...well, Penfold was just a freak with a high voice. And Harmsworth? He was timid and inoffensive, but due some spite. Of course these were not reasons at all, merely pretexts upon which to lay into people we didn't like. Why didn't we like them? No reason. But kids don't need reasons to do things, they just do them for the hell of it. Why destroy Croome's bicycle by throwing it off the balcony? Because it was bright yellow, but mainly to see if it would 'look cool' when mangled. Why go into Penfold's room and interrogate him about his sexual preferences until he cried, before knocking over his pot-plant? Because he deserved it, obviously.
The boys in the year above scolded us: 'Why do you make Croome's life a misery? You're so immature.' Which seemed rich coming from the mouths that had been persecuting Nick 'Stick Insect' van de Llobregat less than a year before. The most saintly person goes through a period in their life when giving somebody grief for no reason seems the most normal thing in the world. Ten years on, it seems astonishing how barbaric we were. But I feel that this has more to do with growing up than an enhanced sense of ethics.
Growing up involves distinguishing between those things that are worth fighting over and those that are not. I now see that somebody's principles are more important than whether or not they have a silly haircut. I have also learnt that it is generally more constructive to cooperate with people than to fight with them. Bullying is part of this learning process. Croome and Harmsworth later became good friends of mine, and although neither remembers those days of torment with affection, their suffering has surely hardened them against obstacles they will encounter in the future. They have not been traumatised. They are normal. I should know, I was bullied myself.
At Ludgrove, my preparatory school, Croker-Lammie and Pombal frequently beat on me. To them, I was the clever weirdo who was asking for it; to me, I was younger, smarter and more popular than them and they were just jealous. The low point came one day after tea when I tried to assert myself by not giving them my mini-Mars Bars. They took me to a disused coal shed, hit me with farm wire and peed on me. Being meek and a snitch, I did not fight back but instead told the nearest prefect, who informed the headmaster. They got six of the best. Within a couple of years Croker-Lammie and Pombal had become two of my best friends. When we did our dastardly deeds as 12-year olds, we were on the same side.
Since I consider myself to be a well-rounded individual rather than an emotional cripple, I am curious to know why such a fuss is being made about bullying these days. Perhaps the concern about bullying stems from a desire to make schools into nicer, kinder places, and is therefore a good thing. I have my doubts.
The concern about bullying is so widespread that even on the playing fields of Eton, once so tough that the Battle of Waterloo was won there, boys are being taught restraint and respect. What used to consist of the odd, coyly titled 'health lecture' has now been institutionalised in weekly Personal and Social Education (PSE) tutorials for younger boys. A small army of staff is expected to act in a counselling capacity as part of the job:
'If a boy needs advice or wants to talk over a problem, he has ready access to three adults: his house master, his dame (the house matron), and his tutor. He may also consult in confidence one of the two school doctors, any of the five chaplains, and the part-time school counsellor. In practice, since virtually all masters live within walking distance, boys can go at almost any time to talk to any master.' ('Care and discipline', Eton College Prospectus 1997/8)
Etonians are encouraged to disclose their feelings in a way that would have been derided as 'girlish' not so long ago. I have to say I dread to think what would have happened had I turned up on my Greek master's doorstep at four in the morning to ask 'does my bum look big in this?'.
Eton was one of the first independent schools to phase out corporal punishment and one of the first to introduce PSE as a formal subject. As yet, there is no written syllabus, but a 'general approach' has been developed over the last few years under the guidance of the new headmaster and a senior chaplain. All tutors, many of whom are notoriously crusty, are expected to include at least one session on bullying. This does not come easily to them, sex and drugs being relatively clear-cut compared to the complexities of interpersonal relationships. So the tutors are reskilled by attending twice-termly workshops given by a nurse-cum-counsellor.
To imagine some of my old tutors involved in role-play games exceeds my current brain capacity. Nevertheless Tom Brown's schooldays are long gone and resistance is futile. Part of me doubts that this new approach will work: since when have adults ever been able to impose their will on children without instilling the fear of God (or a beating) into them? As far as I remember, the appeal of an activity had a perfect correlation with its supposed vice quotient. Children's quarrels rarely have a rational basis, so it is hard to understand how 'talking it through' could make much impact.
This iron law may be breaking down and it may be that bullying levels decrease, making schools into kinder places. But I can't help feeling that if children are cosseted they will probably be less able to deal with the conflicts encountered in adulthood. Younger generations will grow up less able to settle disputes at a one-to-one level and more depend- ent upon third parties to provide resolution to their problems.
Children's experimentation, for better or for worse, often includes the systematic torment of others. That's life. My house master used to be fond of saying that sorting things out for ourselves was in everybody's interests. I always took this to be a sinister threat regarding the perils that led to the slipper - used only sparingly and with parents' consent by the late 1980s. Perhaps he was right after all.
Names have been changed to avoid embarrassment
Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998