EDNOTE: VN's role in this item is admittedly marginal, and, if I recall correctly, wrong. Nonetheless,  the story is  so redolent of Xmas Cheer that I couldn' resist running it.
----- Original Message -----
From: Sandy P. Klein
December 14, 2002

Well beaten Britain finally bends to the inevitable

The strange, ancient British practise of caning suffered a critical blow this week, when a group of 40 independent Christian schools in the UK lost a battle in the courts to have hitting a child with rod, birch or slipper upheld as a human right. These schools have been fighting a rearguard action, so to speak, ever since caning was outlawed in Britain three years ago, arguing that corporal punishment is part of Christian heritage.

With this court ruling, the school cane will finally join the cat o’ nine tails as a museum piece, an archaic tool of ritual punishment, and not a moment too soon.

Of all the traditions cherished by Britons, caning was perhaps the most atavistic. Long after most of the rest of the civilised world gave up the punishment, our schools continued to echo to the whack and yell of ritual flogging. The subject still brings a misty twinge of nostalgia to many a public school-educated Tory, for whom caning is convenient political shorthand for a halcyon age when discipline could be restored by six of best, in a world of manly certainty where everyone knew their place (although sitting down was, presumably, rather painful). In the past Iain “the moderniser” Duncan Smith has supported calls for the reintroduction of caning.

Most weirdly of all, the caning tradition was cherished by people who never went near the sort of schools where this was practised. Billy Bunter and Whacko! (the 1950s television comedy with Jimmy Edwards leering over his cane) were pop culture at its most popular, an idealisation of upper-class, boarding school life for the masses. (Hogwarts, in a much more benign way, achieves the same effect today.)

For the record: I was caned, only once, on the hand, for smoking: it hurt like Hades; the cane-wielder thoroughly enjoyed it; it did not make a man of me and I continued smoking for the next 25 years. (In the 17th century smoking was compulsory at some English schools because it was considered a defence against the plague. One schoolboy complained that he was “never so much whipped in his life” as he was one morning for not smoking. Which goes to show how arbitrary such punishment can be.)

Caning in schools was not banned here until 1999 — 100 years after Poland outlawed it — and the habit remains bizarrely embedded, even celebrated, in our culture. It is (or was) part of how others see us. Flagellation is “le vice Anglais”, according to the French, and one of our least appealing national stereotypes is the belief that the British are unnecessarily cruel to their children, with our brutal nannies and enforced cod liver oil. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that his earliest mental image of Britain was of a ferocious, red-haired schoolmaster beating a boy.

As with foot-binding in China, parents often encouraged this painful tradition for no better reason than the perverse one that it had been done to them. There have always been voices of protest, to be sure, starting with Socrates. Sounding oddly like a shadow education spokesman, he bemoaned the lack of school discipline in Athens of the 5th century BC. “They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers.” But Socrates also argued that whacking these Athenian urchins was not the answer: “Bring not up your children by Compulsion and Fear, but by Playing and Pleasure.”

In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens depicted the beatings administered by the psychopath Wackford Squeers with intent to shock, and the moment when Nickleby thrashes Squeers is one of the great comeuppances of literature. And yet Mr Quelch in Billy Bunter and cane-wielding Teacher in The Bash Street Kids are more jokes than demons.

So far from instilling moral fibre, the effect of caning clearly had a rather odd effect on some public schoolboys. On his first trip to Ethiopia in 1936, Evelyn Waugh paid a courtesy call on the British Ambassador. His diary entry for the occasion reads: “Arrived Addis 4 pm. Dinner with British mission. Asked me to beat him.”

George Orwell was deeply ambivalent about caning. In his essay Such, such were the Joys, he wrote about his wretched schooldays, the snobbery and the cruelty, and the beatings he suffered for bed-wetting. He loathed the brutality. Yet he stopped wetting his bed and wrote that it was “a mistake to think such methods do not work”. As a teacher, he mercilessly caned schoolboys himself. The rod might, conceivably, have terrified Eric Blair into nocturnal continence, but there were and are many gentler and more effective ways of doing that.

The most unlikely people thought the birch was educational. Samuel Johnson himself observed: “There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly — but then less is learnt there; so that what the boys get at one end, they lose at the other.” The master had a God-given right to flog, and the schoolboy a right to be flogged.

The Appeal Court disagreed this week, and rejected the religious schools’ claim that the caning ban was in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. Unless the case goes to the Lords, this painful episode is over. I wonder what the Afghans would have made of this case, having just been delivered from a regime which routinely abused their human rights in the belief that pain could instill moral religious behaviour.

So now Quelch, Squeers, Thwackum and all the other beaters have gone, save for a small, smarting rump. The cane inflicted far more harm than good, creating a most peculiar corner of the national culture, based on fear, violence and class division and giving the French an opportunity for cheap jokes at our expense. Whatever the floggers might claim, it always hurt us, as a nation, far more than it hurt them.

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