On the tenth anniversary of John Peel’s death, Sam Barber reflects on Peel’s experience of boarding school. Please be aware that this account contains material some people might find triggering or upsetting.
Ten years ago John Peel died. His boarding school education was very much a part of his taciturn, stoic and, of course, ‘self-depreciating’ charm. You can hear it in his Desert Island Discs interview from January 1990 from 10 – 12 minutes. It’s a fairly positive account of boarding in the 1950s with his housemaster, his ‘in loco’ parent, RHJ Brooke, being particularly influential. He does say, however, ‘I’m always astonished that nobody ever, ever, ever, questioned any of this stuff’ and talking to his kids about it: ‘You sound as though you are describing something that happened at least 100 years ago’.
Published in 2005, his posthumous autobiography is more hard-hitting. He reveals sexual abuse – boy on boy, pupil on pupil – at boarding school: ‘Another study monitor obliged me to perform an even more unwelcome service during what was supposed to be a period of doing homework. This period, during which we were confined to our studies, was called ‘top schools’, but for my study monitor it was ‘hand jobs’. If for some reason my tormentor didn’t require a hand job, possibly because he had already compelled another small boy to give him one, he loaned me to one of his two friends and I was obliged to service them instead. This man – and although it is tempting to name him, I’m not going to – was, I think, the only genuinely amoral person I’ve ever met [apart from Jimmy Saville, we imagine]. Towards the end of our time together, he compelled me to agree to meet him in a public toilet in the cemetery on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, where he raped me. Oddly enough, much as I hated the experience, I think I had become so accustomed to systematic sexual abuse that I wasn’t especially traumatised by the experience. However, it was many years before I could bring myself to tell anyone what had happened to me, and when I did tell Sheila, my wife, one afternoon in the eighties as we drove through Shrewsbury and past the cemetery toilet block, she found it, I think, more upsetting than I ever did. We have not spoken of it again.’
Yet the pupil-on-pupil abuse Peel describes is an inherent danger in boarding schools where kids are living for two thirds of each year in the absence of love. Even if outright abuse doesn’t take place, we know and feel the cost of this emotional isolation. John Peel felt it too.