William Ewart Gladstone, visiting the Bourbon kingdom of Naples in 1850–51, famously damned it as ‘the negation of God erected into a system of government’. He might have said the same, a hundred years later, about English boarding preparatory schools. With their inadequate sanitation, appalling food and draconian discipline administered by half-mad sadists, they seem, in retrospect, to have existed purely so that a generation of sensitive souls could blame their dysfunctional adulthood on the traumas induced by repeated caning, tapioca pudding and the rhymed mnemonics of Kennedy’s Latin primer.
My own prep school was the shining exception to this dismal norm. Moffats, named after the Elizabethan entomologist Thomas Moffat, father of the nursery rhyme ‘Little Miss Muffet’, occupied a Georgian mansion in Shropshire, complete with several rather good family portraits, a scagliola-columned ballroom and a handsome leather-backed library. The curriculum mixed high culture with the great outdoors, to the absolute extinction of boredom. After riding my pony Gingerbread or getting the cows in for milking at the home farm, I’d be singing through Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and making landscape dioramas in the art room. We had The Last Chronicle of Barset read to us as an evening treat following a day’s potato-harvesting and recited Housman and Flecker to each other as we clambered up the big oak trees in the park. There was no caning, on Sundays we ate roast beef with all the trimmings and Kennedy was replaced by the headmaster’s brilliant home-made Latin course, which surrounded ablative absolutes and semi-deponent verbs with a strange loveliness.