three pairs of lovers with space

ETON BY RANULPH FIENNES

 

The famous explorer Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet (born 7 March 1944) published his memoirs, Living Dangerously: The Autobiography of Ranulph Fiennes, in 1987. The following excerpts are taken from his chapter on his schooldays at England’s best-known public school, Eton. He was there from September 1956 to June 1961, in R. J. N. Parr’s house, but the excerpts relate to the first three and a half years, when he was aged 12 ½ to just 16.

 

3  Eton

There is no end to the víolatíons conınıítted by children
on children, quietly talking alone.
ELIZABETH BOWEN

My great misfortune was to be a pretty little boy. I can hardly blame Eton for that, yet my memories of the place are tarnished because of it.

My mother drove me to Eton, the Morris Minor laden with suitcases, a colourful rug and two framed prints of spaniels. Accustomed to Sandroyd[1] with its 100 pupils, I was awed by the thought of over 1000 boys, many of them eighteen-year-olds and over six feet tall. Some, I was told, used razors like men.

At Sandroyd my baronetcy and my South African background had proved to be good PR. Here there were numerous ex-colonials, and baronets were trashy nonentities eclipsed by a welter of earls, lords and viscounts. Scions of the great families of commerce abounded, including two Vesteys and a Sainsbury.

There were three others at Mr Parr's House tea party for new boys. Our parents met in the housemaster's study and fingered thin sandwiches while we summed each other up in a nearby room over an iced cake and chocolate biscuits. I never again saw an officially sanctioned iced cake in Mr Parr's House and wonder whether that first and only goodie was a symbolic goodbye to childhood fare.

The noisiest of my three new colleagues was Dave Hart. He was stocky, sallow-skinned and Jewish, a heavy cross to bear at Eton. Gilbert Woods, willow-thin and sharp featured was the son of an Oxfordshire MP. He formed a close and lasting friendship with the other new boy, Desmond Sanford, who came from Kenya. Any idea I may have nursed of popularity through jungle tales was dashed by Sanford's presence.
[…]

The autobiography of Wilfred Blunt covering his years as art master at Eton

Trying to come to terms with this amazing new world, I had little time to be homesick, and even less for leisure. But I did find myself attracted to the Drawing Schools. Officially each boy spent one period of forty-five minutes per week at the Schools, but they were open to all comers every day for painting, pottery and puppetry. The senior master was a kindly soul named Wilfred Blunt whose younger brother Anthony, an ex-colleague of Philby, Burgess and Maclean, was then in charge of Her Majesty the Queen's paintings.[2] […]

Willy Blunt recently completed his Eton memoirs and explained their revealing nature in the foreword: … I felt that some account of the problems that face a homosexual schoolmaster could possibly be of help to others similarly handicapped through no fault of their own.’

He also stated that he had never so much as kissed a single pupil under his charge. I am sure none of us had even a glimmer of suspicion that dear old Willy was that way inclined.
[…]

Quite when and how the horror started is now lost to me since the mind does its best to heal the deepest sores. But I believe l had been at Eton about a ınonth when Woods and Sanford entered my room just before lunchtime.

'They say you're a tart, Fiennes. Did you know?'

'What', I asked them 'is a tart?' - since they were obviously not talking about apple pies or the  street women of Mayfair.

They giggled together with much uplifting of eyebrows. 'Not the sort of thing we had expected you to be.'

Afire with curiosity, and knowing my contemporaries would be as ignorant as I, I asked an older boy for the definition of a tart. More sniggers.

I know it took me some days, days of increasing pain, fear and humiliation, before I learned fully what I was in the eyes of my erstwhile friends - for friends they soon ceased to be as one by one they learned of my new status. No leper or spy can have suffered so long or. so sharply as I did as I struggled to live cheek-by-jowl twenty-four hours a day for two years with the shouted taunts and the subtle cruelties of my fellow Etonians. There was no leper colony or traitor's prison where I could hide my face from the sadism of my untainted peers.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

I visited the school library and found a thesaurus in which a tart was likened to 'Bawd, pimp, white lave, whore, bitch or slut'. I learned that in Eton slang a tart is a boy who sells himself for sexual activities in return for favours, be they cash or kind. I realised there could be no lower form of life than a tart. I must prove my innocence at once. But how? Best to start with close colleagues and hope they would spread the truth to counter the dreadful lie.

'Tell them I am not a tart,' I pleaded with Woods, who I could tell was basically a decent sort. 'Tell them in your class and maybe they will tell people in their Houses and in other classes.' Of course Woods could have made no impact at all once the word was out, even had he wanted to. As it was, his own position, and that of Sanford and Hart, was enhanced by my degrading, for that is the indisputable law in any jungle. In their shoes I would have behaved as they did. Curiously enough, the least unpleasant tart-taunter was Hart, who in every other respect was to become my bête noire for the four years until his expulsion.[3]

It never struck me that perhaps many boys at Eton neither knew nor cared who I was or whether or not I was a tart. Nor did I realise that, of those who did hear that Fiennes was a tart, many were aware that any and every pretty boy is a tart whether or not he actually indulges in sexual acts with other boys. In nearly five years at Eton I cannot remember a single boy called a tart who was not considered either pretty or sexually titillating. The Eton tart gossip is based not on what actually happens but on what the gossipers would like to think has happened.

There was no one for me to run to. I could not conceive of pouring out my nightmare to Miss Grieve, the Dame, much less Mr Parr. I could not write or phone home, for how could I make my mother understand such things? I had lived a sheltered life in an all-female family where the straight facts of life had been imparted in the standard Birds and Bees fashion. There had been no reference to gay Birds or queer Bees and I was totally unprepared for the way in which the world fell apart about me. My skin was paper-thin, my imagination fertile and my ability to fight back nil. Perhaps if some male relative had warned me of the impending problems adolescence at Eton would involve, I might somehow have forearmed myself. But I had no brothers, no uncles and no father. The only alternative to counter-attack was to escape, but there was something in my make-up which precluded the option of running away from school. This course simply never occurred to me. Crying hopelessly at nights, I contemplated the option of suicide with growing seriousness, having left a detailed note of accusation naming each and every one of my torturers. In retrospect, this last detail would not have been possible since I was daily troubled by new faces to which I could put no name, boys who pinched my bottom in the crush outside morning chapel, who pursed their lips into a kiss while nudging their companion as they passed in the street, the wolf-whistles and 'coo-eees' from the windows of Houses all about as I passed below.

George Young (later a cabinet minister) as Captain of Sir Ranulph's Eton House, 1959

It seemed to me that 1100 boys stared and sneered, and I loathed the lot of them. The plan that I settled upon was to jump off the bridge over the Thames between Eton and Windsor. Once my mind was made up to do this, I at least had the assurance of instantly available escape and revenge. Subconsciously, I suppose, I knew I would never self-destruct. The ten commandments had been clearly explained by my mother. All human life was sacred. Nor would l have wilfully made my mother suffer.

Beyond the mental defence of the suicide plan, there were other aids, such as an ugly scowl, which I practised daily in front of my mirror to lessen the scourge of prettiness. I wore this scowl like a mask as others might apply cream to hide shameful pimples.

Increasingly, any conversation I tried to open was met by ribald responses. So I learned to talk to no one, never to go into an older boy's room, never to look at anyone, only at the ground or my desk or the pavement. And, most important of all, I learned to switch off, not to think of tomorrow or the taunting gauntlet of the next boys' lunch or the 600 pairs of staring eyes at chapel. This lesson was invaluable for subsequent rigours in hostile climes, and I have Eton - or, to be more precise, my fellow Etonians - to thank for that.

At last that first term - or half as Eton terms are called - came to an end and the prison gates, Mr Parr's front door, clanged behind me. Any resolve not to tell my mother crumbled in a long pent-up tidal wave of grief on the way home. She was devastated and, in passing the burden of my problem to her, the beginnings of hope re-stirred for me. I was again able to love and be loved after the long months wrapped up in hatred for those about me. She promised she would do something to make it better, but in the mean time I must try to forget about it all and enjoy the holidays.

Lodsworth[4] was another world. During that first holiday l replenished my solar batteries in readiness for the next dark tunnel. Of course the very knowledge that the holiday would end laid a mantle of increasing apprehension and gloom over me. But I could still enjoy life by the moment, and I did so.
[…]

As the holiday drew to a close my mother could see the dread of Eton wrapping itself around me. She hated to see me so miserable. 'Can you think of anything I can do to help?' I had not meant to suggest it but now, with return to hell imminent, I blurted out the only idea that held any promise. If only my mother would see Mr Parr and plead with him that I be allowed out of bum-freezers, the short cutaway black jackets worn by Etonians under five feet four inches in height. I knew I was small for my age, certainly not the regulation height, but if I could only wear tailcoats like the bigger boys, the taunting might lessen. The short black bum-freezer jacket was cut off sharp at the waist like a male ballet dancer's tunic, leaving the outlines of buttocks naked, or so it seemed when wearing them, to the lewd gaze of the older boys.

Mr Parr was a kindly man despite his rather severe appearance and he understood exactly what my mother was getting at when she awkwardly tried to describe my problems at school. He had probably heard it all before from the parents of previous pretty pupils. To our delight he agreed to bend the bum-freezer rule and things did improve. Not much, but enough that in the next term I gained a few friends in my class if not in my House.

The Eton boxing team, 1961: Sir Ranulph is seated at the right

Despite my fear of fist-fighting, l decided an excellent adjunct to my permanent scowl would be a reputation as a ferocious boxer, since no more macho, un-tart-like sport existed. The boxing instructor was an ex-professional welter-weight who took great pride in the school boxing team and in any young recruits. Reg Hoblyn was an oasis of solid friendship despite the stern discipline and training schedules he imposed throughout the spring and winter terms.

But neither the new tailcoats that hung protectively over my backside nor my well-practised scowl nor even a gradually growing reputation as a pugilist could alter my girlish face and shape, so the verbal torment continued day after day, term after term.

I was involved in the world of Eton's sexual fantasy. Boys had crushes on me and imagined me in their beds. All over Eton boys talked about me to each other, comparing my allure with that of other tarts in other Houses. Fortunately, time was on my side. Each new term brought a fresh crop of pretty faces and, selfishly, I smiled inwardly whenever I heard my colleagues direct their jokes, whether from camaraderie or malice, at some new unfortunate. So detailed was the gossip about this and that tart and client that even I caught myself looking at other little boys and wondering if perhaps they had behaved as rumoured.

However, only twice during my four and a half years at Eton was I approached in an obvious way. Once during my first term a boy a year or so older followed me into the upstairs shower in the school gym and tried to undo my shorts. I fled. As I was walking down Judy's Passage after boxing training a boy from my own House groped at me from behind and I put my index finger in his eye. That was the sum total of my experience of physical assault or, in today's parlance, unwelcome bids.

I desperately wanted a friend at Eton. After the first year, by which time 1 was thirteen and a half, there were a number of boys in my class and even in Parr's House who were friendly enough, until someone would spark off a new round of mockery; then for a while everybody kept their distance again. Nevertheless, l began to enjoy events, certain lessons, boxing matches. Life was no longer all bad.

Discussing history as his favourite subject:

I prided myself on my knowledge of Britain’s naval heroes, but one attempt to show off rebounded when I shot my hand up to the master’s question, ‘What did Stanley say at his famous jungle meeting?’

My instant reply, ‘Kiss me, Livingstone’, was greeted with the derision it deserved.
[…]

I am not in a position to say Eton is, was, or ever has been more sexually active or brutal than any other boarding school for young men. John Graham, a distinguished journalist, gave me the following account of Eton in the late 1950s:[5]

There was a lot of sexual activity at school both outside and inside. We lived in boarding houses, we each had our own bedroom. Any boy could easily slip along to another's room and the boys did sleep with one another. We slept with each other not because we were homosexual but because we were at a highly sexual time of our lives and there were no available girls.

We talked and dreamed about girls. Our rooms were ablaze with pin-ups, Brigitte Bardot, Mansfield and Monroe. Had there been any girls around, we would have been as heterosexual, as straight, as anyone. But there were none. Schoolmasters may say you can sublimate all your excess sexual energy playing football or learning French verbs but that is baloney. A lot of our surplus energy expressed itself sexually and since our only potential partners were of the same sex, our encounters were naturally homosexual. We were in bed with each other and had a very nice time.

In the holidays we chased girls as fast as we could and we certainly did not consider ourselves bent or gay. Perhaps ten per cent of Eton homosexuals remained so after leaving school and they would have ended up gay whatever school they attended.

I know of no instance of physical cruelty or torture but you don't have to engage in torture to be cruel at that age. You do it by taunting, teasing, cold-shouldering and picking on someone. A prefect can pick on a small boy and make his life a misery unless that smaller boy delivers some sexual favours.

The Eton faggíng system meant that a small boy became a personal servant to a senior prefect and the boundary between being a personal servant and being a slave is a narrow one. ‘I won’t send you on errands; clean my boots and so on if you come to bed with me' . . . rather like serving girls and Regency beaux a couple of hundred years ago.

Even now in the 1980s, thirty years after my time there, Eton still has its gay problems. In the early part of this decade there were blackmail rings, one of which made headlines when a couple of young boys were exploited by a bunch of older ones and then threatened to tell. Money and sex and ugly scenes. Does the system cause this or would it have happened at any school?  Difficult to say but a day school or a co-ed school would be less prone, I think.

There was very little supervision by masters at Eton. It was largely left to senior boys. All you needed was a few self-indulgent prefects and you pretty soon had anarchy about regulations, about sex, about anything at all. …

Sir Ranulph in 1961, when he left Eton

From March to September 1960, aged 16, having developed rheumatic fever, Fiennes was sent home to rest. On his return:

I had grown six inches in as many months while away from school and my body had filled out in every direction. My chest pains were gone, my voice was quite broken and I weighed eleven stone. Moving up to light-heavyweight, I trained harder than ever with Reg Hoblyn's good advice. I went to hospital for three days with double vision, two of my teeth were chipped, my nose was broken and the joints of both my thumbs became swollen from misplaced hooks with the inside of my gloves. Nonetheless, I lost few fights and no longer heard the old 'tart' taunts of the fifties. To help matters, my face had lengthened and grown encouragingly unattractive even without the scowl. […] My newly squashed nose and lost looks increased my self-confidence [….]

Summarising Eton at the end of the chapter:

“My only complaint was the nature of my fellow inmates, and all schools have their share of nasty little boys. The acid test must be: If I had a son, would I send him there? I cannot honestly say that I would not.”[6] [pp. 15-32]

 

[1] His preparatory school in Wiltshire.

[2] These were four of the “Cambridge Five”, communists and spies for the USSR, whither two had already defected by the time Sir Ranulph went to Eton. The role of Anthony Blunt, also homosexual, was not publicly exposed until 1979.

[3] He was expelled over a girl, as related by Sir Ranulph on p. 28.

[4] His home in Sussex.

[5] He gave a much fuller personal account of his time at Eton, from which he was expelled in 1957 “for going to bed with another boy” in Eton Voices, edited by Danny Danziger (Penguin, 1988) pp. 116-9. Sir Ranulph also contributed to this book a much shorter account of his time at Eton than is given here.

[6] In fact, Sir Ranulph has not had a son, as of 2019.