Those of us who have spent our professional lives in state schools tend to jump to conclusions about the private sector - that some prep schools, for example, can be seedy places staffed by unqualified no-hopers and owned by chancers thrown out of the second-hand car trade for ungentlemanly conduct. This is, of course, an unfair and prejudiced view.
Then you read Jonathan Hall's book about Arnold Lodge, a school which, in the Fifties and Sixties, went through the kind of hair-raising tribulations that make Evelyn Waugh's Llanaba Castle in Decline and Fall look like one of Ofsted's beacon schools. One passage, describing events in the late Fifties, reads: "The school was in disarray. The headmaster was ill; the senior master was an alcoholic; in addition to myself, the only other master was sufficiently near to retirement age not to want to take on additional burdens. Despite his impeccable credentials, his private life..."
At times, Hall's autobiographical account of his youth (he was born in 1937) seems like an invitation to overdose on Schadenfreude - an impression reinforced not only by the publisher's blurb ("Hall copes with admirable fortitude and determination, often placing duty before personal desire") but also by the book's title, which begs to be read aloud in a doom-laden voice.
The son of Arnold Lodge's owner-head, the young Jonathan is sent to board in another prep school (staying with mum and dad would have been too easy). There then follows a miserable time at Repton, where he is ostracised as the result of a bizarre misunderstanding after an attempt to discuss a childhood episode of sexual abuse. During National Service, a disastrous attempt to become an officer ends not just in failure but in his being thrown out of the army on psychiatric grounds. It is all downhill from there.
Agood-looking chap, with the right "county" connect-ions, he has some complicated love affairs, one of which ends with his arrest by the Swiss police. Somehow he fits in teacher training at St Luke's, Exeter, where he discovers that some student teachers come from quite ordinary backgrounds. "I thought they lacked polish and spoke ungrammatically or with regional accents," he explains.
Eventually, he has to take over Arnold Lodge, buckling down to the at times mountainous task of turning the place into the well-respected and successful independent school that it now is. Right to the end, though - again testifying to the truth of the book's title - there were chasms waiting to open. The book opens with quite recent events: Hall's own serious illness, and his subsequent attempt to withdraw from the school, leaving it in good hands.
Here we are given an illuminating insight into the dilemma facing the independent school owner who wants to retire with some financial security and yet needs to keep faith with pupils and parents. According to Hall, there really are some sharks out there, and the scathing terms he uses about the abilities, judgment and motives of some of the people he has encountered tell of wounds still not entirely healed. It takes four years of distress and financial hazard before he succeeds in transferring the school to people of integrity and genuine educational vision.
This story is both painfully frank and astonishing. Often I disliked Hall intensely, as when he and a friend are casually amused by a man with a London accent (he calls him "a cockney" of course) trying to buy a cup of "tie" in Nice. Then I realised, not least from his account of primary and secondary school teaching practices at St Luke's, that this man was, above all, a good teacher who could have had a distinguished career in any sector of education.