british boarding schools — 7/21/15

Today’s selection — from The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. British boarding schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s were places where the boys dormitories were largely unsupervised. The result was the frequent hazing of younger schoolboys by the older ones, which was often extended into forced sexual relations. The trauma of these experiences makes its appearance in much British literature, notably Robert Graves’ 1929 memoir Good-Bye to All That. Charles Dodgson [who we know better as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland] found this out for himself in the mid-1800s:
“What Lewis Carroll was also forced to recognize at [the Rugby] school … is that not every difficulty could be resolved as neatly as a mathematical problem. Whereas his brother Wilfred was a ‘keen sportsman’ who’ achieved distinction as an oarsman’ and was ‘one of the best shots of his day’, the kind of sports Carroll enjoyed, such as croquet, involved calculating angles and vectors rather than smashing into other boys, and these were not likely to make him popular at the school that had invented the modern game of rugby football. Violet Dodgson is probably right to claim that her uncle ‘worked hard and avoided games as far as possible’. What he couldn’t avoid was the ritual humiliation of being the sort of boy who ends up being picked last for a football team, or is told to field on the cricket boundary so that he can be kept away from the ball.

“Evidence that he was thought of as something other than a sporting idol comes from another school textbook, this time a copy of Xenophon he acquired in November 1846, in which he wrote his name and another hand added ‘is a muff’, before repeating the insult at the top of the page: ‘Dodgson is a muff: The word’s general meaning of ‘A foolish, stupid, feeble, or incompetent person’ was sharpened in school contexts to mean the sort of boy who was clumsy or inept at sports (a ‘muff’ also referred to a dropped catch at cricket), and it could be deployed in either an affectionate or a more hostile manner. In Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days, written in celebration of his time at Rugby under Arnold, Bill the porter is fondly chaffed as an ‘old muff,’ while the delicate new boy Arthur is openly laughed at as a ‘young muff’. In fiction, of course, young muffs like Arthur were usually protected by stout-hearted heroes like Tom Brown, who saves him from the bullies and then follows Arthur’s saintly example by saying his prayers every night beside his dormitory bed. The reality was usually far less reassuring. Another delicate new boy, this time a real one, left a full diary of the months he spent at Rugby before his early death, and it makes unhappy reading. Entering the school on 28 August 1846, seven months after Carroll, John Lang Bickersteth was not only frail and good at mathematics, but also remarkably pious — one of his diary entries reads ‘A man buried today — a warning to me’ — and he suffered accordingly. Sad and friendless from the start, he was accused of being ‘mean and stingy’ for not buying any pictures for his study, and was teased mercilessly by the other boys. During one especially bleak evening, he had a dog repeatedly set on him. By mid-September, his diary had collapsed into exclamations such as ‘O God, sustain me!’ and by the end of the following January he had died at home from a fever.

“There is no evidence that Carroll suffered as badly as this, but as an adult his references to Rugby were few and cool in tone, stating only that no ‘earthly considerations would induce me to go through my three years again’, and ‘the hardships of the day would have been comparative trifles to bear’ if only he had been ‘secure from annoyance at night’. There was no shortage of possible ‘annoyances’ in a shared dormitory. Collingwood notes that the older pupils would sometimes remove the blankets of the younger ones, leaving them to shiver through the night, while blankets also featured in a popular form of torture that involved tossing the smaller boys up in the air and letting them fall to the ground. (In Tom Brown’s School Days this is a favourite pastime of Flashman, the school’s chief bully, who also enjoys roasting boys in front of the fire like chestnuts.) However, the text Carroll probably had in mind isParadise Lost, which describes Adam and Eve ‘asleep secure of [i.e. safe from] harm’ before Satan tempts them and they fall. Did Carroll experience something similar? Rugby’s dormitories were certainly known as places where sexual activity took place; a history of the school published in 1856 included an oblique reference to ‘petty perversions’, which could mean anything from masturbation to full-blown affairs. For some boys, sexual knowledge could be just as traumatic as actual sexual activity: the chapter on ‘Dormitory Life’ in F. W Farrar’s popular schoolboy tale Eric; or, Little by Little (1858) describes an evening of fun that starts with a game of leap-frog, but quickly descends to ‘indecent talk’, leaving one boy, who urges his friends to stop, feeling ‘as if I was trampling on a slimy poisonous adder’. In case the metaphor is not sufficiently clear, Farrar explains that another boy listens in on the smutty conversations and becomes ‘a “god, knowing good and evil”‘ — another Adam who falls because of the temptations of a snake-like creature.

“Whatever Carroll overheard or witnessed at Rugby, it appears to have confirmed his sense that innocence was a special preserve of childhood that was constantly in danger of being breached. Once that occurred it was gone for ever: childhood was a paradise with gates that all too easily swung shut and locked behind you. Only in a story like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland could they be reopened a crack, as Alice glimpses ‘bright flowers’ and ‘cool fountains’ at the end of a dark passage, and then shrinks even smaller to enter ‘the loveliest garden you ever saw’.”

The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland

Author: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
First Harvard University Press Edition
Copyright Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, 2015
Pages 54-56

If you wish to read further: Buy Now


 If you use the above link to purchase a book, delanceyplace proceeds from your purchase will benefit a children’s literacy project. All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity.

About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.


Why Would Anyone Miss War?

A Marine waits to take psychological tests at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. CreditJae C. Hong/Associated Press

SEVERAL years ago I spent time with a platoon of Army infantry at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, and after the deployment I was surprised that only one of the soldiers chose to leave the military at the end of his contract; many others re-upped and eventually went on to fight for another year in the same area. The soldier who got out, Brendan O’Byrne, remained a good friend of mine as he struggled to fit in to civilian life back home.

About a year later I invited Brendan to a dinner party, and a woman asked him if he missed anything at all about life at the outpost. It was a good question: the platoon had endured a year without Internet, running water or hot food and had been in more combat than almost any platoon in the United States military. By any measure it was hell, but Brendan didn’t hesitate: “Ma’am,” he said, “I miss almost all of it.”

Civilians are often confused, if not appalled, by that answer. The idea that a psychologically healthy person could miss war seems an affront to the idea that war is evil. Combat is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but a fully human reaction is far more complex than that. If we civilians don’t understand that complexity, we won’t do a very good job of bringing these people home and making a place for them in our society.

My understanding of that truth came partly from my own time in Afghanistan and partly from my conversations with a Vietnam veteran named Karl Marlantes, who wrote about his experiences in a devastating novel called “Matterhorn.” Some time after I met Karl, a woman asked me why soldiers “compartmentalize” the experience of war, and I answered as I imagined Karl might have: because society does. We avoid any direct look at the reality of war. And both sides of the political spectrum indulge in this; liberals tend to be scandalized that war can be tremendously alluring to young men, and conservatives rarely acknowledge that war kills far more innocent people than guilty ones. Soldiers understand both of these things but don’t know how to talk about them when met with blank stares from friends and family back home.

“For a while I started thinking that God hated me because I had sinned,” Brendan told me after he got back from Afghanistan. “Everyone tells you that you did what you had to do, and I just hate that comment because I didn’t have to do any of it. I didn’t have to join the Army; I didn’t have to become airborne infantry. But I did. And that comment — ‘You did what you had to do’ — just drives me insane. Because is that what God’s going to say — ‘You did what you had to do? Welcome to heaven?’ I don’t think so.”

If society were willing to acknowledge the very real horrors of war — even a just war, as I believe some are — then men like Brendan would not have to struggle with the gap between their world view and ours. Every year on the anniversary of D-Day, for example, we acknowledge the heroism and sacrifice of those who stormed the beaches of Normandy. But for a full and honest understanding of that war, we must also remember the firebombing of Dresden, Frankfurt and Hamburg that killed as many as 100,000 Germans, as well as both conventional and nuclear strikes against Japan that killed hundreds of thousands more.

Photographs taken after allied air raids in Germany show piles of bodies 10 or 15 feet high being soaked in gasoline for burning. At first you think you’re looking at images from Nazi concentration camps, but you’re not — you’re looking at people we killed.

I am in no way questioning the strategic necessity of those actions; frankly, few of us are qualified to do so after so much time. I am simply pointing out that if we as a nation avoid coming to terms with events like these, the airmen who drop the bombs have a much harder time coming to terms with them as individuals. And they bear almost all the psychic harm.

Change history a bit, however, and imagine those men coming back after World War II to a country that has collectively taken responsibility for the decision to firebomb German cities. (Firebombing inflicted mass civilian casualties and nearly wiped out cities.) This would be no admission of wrongdoing — many wars, like Afghanistan and World War II, were triggered by attacks against us. It would simply be a way to commemorate the loss of life, as one might after a terrible earthquake or a flood. Imagine how much better the bomber crews of World War II might have handled their confusion and grief if the entire country had been struggling with those same feelings. Imagine how much better they might have fared if there had been a monument for them to visit that commemorated all the people they were ordered to kill.

At first, such a monument might be controversial — but so was the Vietnam memorial on the Mall in Washington. Eventually, however, that memorial proved to be extremely therapeutic for veterans struggling with feelings of guilt and loss after the war.

Every war kills civilians, and thankfully our military now goes to great lengths to keep those deaths to a minimum. Personally, I believe that our involvement in Afghanistan has saved far more civilian lives than it has cost. I was there in the 1990s; I know how horrific that civil war was. But that knowledge is of faint comfort to the American soldiers I know who mistakenly emptied their rifles into a truck full of civilians because they thought they were about to be blown up. A monument to the civilian dead of Iraq and Afghanistan would not only provide comfort to these young men but also signal to the world that our nation understands the costs of war.

It doesn’t matter that most civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused by insurgent attacks; if our soldiers died for freedom there — as presidents are fond of saying — then those people did as well. They, too, are among the casualties of 9/11. Nearly a decade after that terrible day, what a powerful message we would send to the world by honoring those deaths with our grief.

the myth of mass panic — 7/9/15

Today’s encore selection — from “Crowd Control: How We Avoid Mass Panic” by John Drury and Stephen D. Reicher. The myth of the mass panic. In disasters, rather than descending into disorder and a helpless state, people come together and give one another strength:

 “The image of the panicked crowd is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination. Hardly any self-respecting Hollywood disaster movie would be complete without one scene of people running wildly in all directions and screaming hysterically. Television newscasters perpetuate this stereotype with reports that show shoppers competing for items in what is described as ‘panic buying’ and traders gesticulating frantically as ‘panic’ sweeps through the stock market.

“The idea of mass panic shapes how we plan for, and respond to, emergency events. In Pennsylvania, for example, the very term is inscribed in safety regulations known as the state’s Fire and Panic Code. Many public officials assume that ordinary people will become highly emotional in an emergency, especially in a crowded situation and that providing information about the true nature of the danger is likely to make individuals panic even more. Emergency management plans and policies often intentionally conceal information: for example, event marshals may be instructed to inform one another of a fire using code words, to prevent people from overhearing the news-and overreacting.

“Mathematicians and engineers who model ‘crowd dynamics’ often rely on similar assumptions describing behaviors such as ‘herding,’ ‘flocking’ and, of course, ‘panic.’ As the late Jonathan Sime (an environmental psychologist formerly at the University of Surrey in England) pointed out, efforts to ‘design out disaster’ have typically treated people as unthinking or instinctive rather than as rational, social beings. Therefore, more emphasis is placed on the width of doorways than on communication technologies that might help people make informed decisions about their own safety.

“These ideas about crowd behavior permeate the academic world, too. For many years, influential psychology textbooks have illustrated mass panic by citing supposed examples such as the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 in Chicago in which some 600 people perished and the Cocoanut Grove Theater fire of 1942 in Boston in which 492 people died. In the textbook explanations, theatergoers burned to death as a result of their foolish overreaction to danger. But Jerome M. Chertkoff and Russell H. Kushigian of Indiana University, the first social psychologists to analyze the Cocoanut Grove fire in depth, found that the nightclub managers had jeopardized public safety in ways that are shocking today. In a 1999 book on the psychology of emergency egress and ingress, Chertkoff and Kushigian concluded that physical obstructions, not mass panic, were responsible for the loss of life in the infamous fire.

“A more recent example tells a similar story. Kathleen Tierney and her co-workers at the University of Colorado at Boulder investigated accusations of panicking, criminality, brutality and mayhem in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They concluded that these tales were ‘disaster myths.’ What was branded as ‘looting’ was actually collective survival behavior: people took food for their families and neighbors when store payment systems were not working and rescue services were nowhere in sight. In fact, the population showed a surprising ability to self-organize in the absence of authorities, according to Tierney and her colleagues.

“Such work builds on earlier research by two innovative sociologists in the 1950s. Enrico Quarantelli — who founded the Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University in 1985 and later moved with it to the University of Delaware — examined many instances of emergency evacuations and concluded that people often flee from dangerous events such as fires and bombings, because usually that is the sensible thing to do. A fleeing crowd is not necessarily a panicked, irrational crowd.

“The second pioneering sociologist, Charles Fritz, was influenced by his experiences as a soldier in the U.K. during the World War II bombings known as the Blitz. ‘The Blitz spirit’ has become a cliché for communities pulling together in times of adversity. In the 1950s, as a researcher at the University of Chicago, Fritz made a comprehensive inventory of 144 peacetime disaster studies that confirmed the truth of the cliché. He concluded that rather than descending into disorder and a helpless state, human beings in disasters come together and give one another strength. Our research suggests that if there is such a thing as panic, it probably better describes the fear and helplessness of lone individuals than the responses of a crowd in the midst of an emergency.”

Author: John Drury and Stephen D. Reicher
Publisher: Scientific America Mind
Date: November/December 2010
Pages: 60-61
About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.