Witness any event. Then read an account. It is often difficult to reconcile the two. Working at Fettes College in Edinburgh during Tony Blair's time and then reading the biographies about his schooldays is no exception. The writers beat old drums and blur key issues in their accounts of the pupil, parent and aspiring Prime Minister. Staff at the school who were trying to do a decent job are disparaged directly or by implication.
The books offer few half-tones and little balance in the generally negative way that the school is depicted. Readers could be forgiven for wondering: "How could such a place have kept a single, half-decent member of staff? How could it have attracted a single, voluntary, fee-paying parent, far less persuaded a presumably thoughtful and caring family like the Blairs to send a second boy down the same track as his brother just two years older?" The answer probably lies with a Blair contemporary: "When I read all those descriptions, I just don't recognise the school."
Far from being, as one author puts it, "locked in a time warp" after the Second World War, the school was a pace-setter. A new head had greatly broadened the intake and speeded up promotion by achievement within age-groups. Music, art, debating, drama, woodwork and metalwork had been developed.
All this was flourishing in Blair's time and the biographers acknowledge that he enjoyed much of it. Yet in a strange way the writers do not give the school credit. It was still a place where "you either rebelled and kicked against the system or went stark raving mad". And to suggest that "there was no rationale except rugby" was nonsense. The options extended to hockey, steeple-chasing, fives, squash, football and, Blair's favourite, basketball. Coaching for the keen was superb and school and house matches evoked great enthusiasm, even among those who only enjoyed watching.
Even on the bleakest winter day, it is true, physical exercise was obligatory. Loathed by some, but almost certainly of benefit to most, it no doubt stirred revolutionary thoughts among those who prefer to think of the world as a centrally heated office.
The writers dwell on homesickness, which is indeed a miserable business, but most boys buckled to and made their own little corner as homely as they could. Yet the tale of woe goes on: "Brother aside, there was nothing to remind him of the warmth of home. What limited comfort there was would come from a matron, not mum or dad."
By Blair's time most of the housemasters were young ex-service graduates. Their families made for a cheerful, extrovert atmosphere clearly far from descriptions such as "harsh" or "emotionally bleak". Such men would not tolerate anything like the tyrannies asserted in the biographies - a world where prefects were said to be empowered to "thrash the younger boys almost at will and act as judges, jury and executioner". Nor of course were such housemasters going to allow those under their charge to write the rules, however much the "young Turks" wanted that.
By the middle sixties "corporal correction" was losing its importance and punishments were made to fit the crime. Natter after lights out and you got up for an hour's weeding. Enforcement of rules such as beds being properly made and book lockers kept tidy must have been annoying if mum did the job at home. But teaching large numbers of adolescents when to be informal and when not can be as hard with regard to manners as turnout and dress.
Another object of attack by Blair's biographers was "leave up-town". For example: "It was easier to travel in the old Communist Russia than for a Fettesian to reach central Edinburgh. There were even surprise assemblies to check that boys were not flouting the rules." In fact there was a reasonable balance of rules for access.
The school was said "not to have accustomed itself to the idea that it was no longer training boys to go out and run an empire or fight on the Western Front". The Fettes commonroom certainly did not seek to downgrade the enduring values of leadership at any level anywhere - courage, integrity, loyalty, reliability, kindness, humour and the like. But the smiling faces in the house photograph of Blair's summer in his first senior house do not look like those in some "POW camp" worn down by the "harsh discipline and archaic practice of fagging".
Even supposing this friendly looking crowd represented "a totally alien world" for the "fresh faced 13-year-old", this was not even Blair's introduction to the school. He entered through the small junior house of some 30 13-year-olds and two prefects seconded from senior houses. Living in two converted private houses eased the transition. Here "fagging" was on a rotational and community basis. One day a boy might help collect the supper, on day two wash up and on the third day tidy a commonroom. On the basis that the prefects were much involved on house business, they too received their supper from the "duty fags".
Cadet training is mocked as "square bashing and gun stripping". Yet this was the era of the Cold War and it seemed right that all should do a spell of basic training. Senior cadets had a wide choice among service units, with some opting for forestry or the Scouts. Others joined "outside service" with wide-ranging activities - art in a children's burns unit, disc jockeys on hospital radio, visiting old folk.
Blair's biographers have chosen to paint a positive picture of the man and a negative one of Fettes. They rubbish much of what went on there. It would be interesting if the Labour leader were to tell us exactly where he agrees and where he does not. That would give a clearer idea of what he actually believes about education and life.
Ronald Guild Ronald Guild is a retired Fettes teacher and housemaster. The books he refers to are Tony Blair by John Rintoul, Tony Blair: the Moderniser by John Sopel, and The Man behind the Smile by Leo Abse.