Thursday, 7 December 2017

Stiff Upper Lip by Alex Renton (2017)

'I didn't have anyone tucking me in at night. I wasn't allowed a teddy bear. I didn't have anyone telling me that everything would be alright.'

The above isn't a quote from Stiff Upper Lip by Alex Renton. They're my words. Alex went to a boarding school near mine in 1969 and I went to mine in 1971. This book, on one level, might as well have been written for me - and my sister, who went to another school not so far away. On another level, the book's made me realise that I dodged a massive bullet. Alex's school was rife with sexual abuse. Mine wasn't when I was there. (I'm afraid that it was in the late 1970s after I left).

Sexual abuse

Stiff Upper Lip is a challenging read if, like me, you were placed in loco parentis aged eight. It talks about Alex's time at boarding school but it also talks about the history of this very British institution, of which I was a part. But a major theme of the book is the massive sexual abuse that happened in many schools. So am I lucky? In my case the piano teacher didn't do anything more than touch me on the knee (although strangely he did turn up at my house six months after I left the school and had a cup of tea with my Mum). 

I can only conclude that my school was run like a benevolent dictatorship. We were protected from the worst of all abuses. I mean there were abuses; there was lots of caning and shouting and the expectation you'd have a stiff upper lip and the ability to cope with this trauma. But, whatever happened at any of these institutions, I agree with Alex when he says that all boarding schools in the 1970s (I can't say what it's like now) let us down in their duty of care and that's something I'm only now starting to deal with in my mid-fifties. 

Monday, 21 August 2017

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen (2017)

Years of communism came about because of a wig. That's the conclusion that Victor Sebestyen comes to about Lenin. The Finnish wig-maker, who inadvertently provided Lenin with his disguise, has a lot to answer for. Not that Lenin was happy with the rug, according to Sebestyen. He complained about its quality. But it was good enough to get him past Provisional Government forces at the border and go on to become the first leader in the Soviet Union. Apparently it was really touch-and-go about whether he might seize power. It was the wig what won it.

Wigless and humourless: Lenin about to be unleashed
Lenin's temper tantrum over the wig is all part of a larger temper tantrum that Sebestyen reckons Lenin had all his life. He doesn't seem to have even taken a step back after the November 1917 revolution and celebrated his victory. 

He was just always in a massive strop, apparently. And nasty - he was on the way to being a massive killer in the same way Stalin was, but died early. And a coward - as his comrades ran to a fight, he chickened out, claiming that leadership needed to be protected. All of this is according to Sebestyen. It's difficult disagree.  

Whether you agree with the humbling of Lenin's legacy or not, the constant digs got on my nerves. I like to read between the lines to make up my mind about a tyrant. Simon Sebag Montefiore is really good at this sort of thing in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

But overall, it's a fascinating look at a rather peculiar person who, against all the odds, set up the massive empire;  and which only fell apart 70 years later. If Lenin hadn't been wearing that wig, it might have all been very different.