Chapter 15. The Monolith Starts to Crumble
3. 1920s-40s : Bedales and other progressive developments (p335-)
Both Badley and Neill were agreed on these principles, but here as elsewhere
Bedales in the 1920s and 30s arrived at a compromise between conventional public school
education and extreme progressive. The teaching was partly conventional and partly
do-it-yourself laboratory method―with a great deal of emphasis on art and music.
In fact the more radical progressive movements of this time sometimes show the more
conventional aspect of Bedales up in a starker light. Sasha Young, for instance, who
was there in 1945, remembers a Rimbaud figure, wild and unconventional, who took painting
far too seriously and saw himself as Gauguin. He was she and others felt, what Bedales was
really about, the sort of person they should have approved of. Yet the staff were
terrified of him. He had taught his dormitory to masturbate and this was another mark
against him. He was supposed to be a bad influence and eventually, after the usual
confrontations, this unconventional but harmless figure, bringer of strange delights, one
of the few original people there, was sacked. It seemed a betrayal of what Bedales was
supposed to stand for. There was a degree of censorship and it was during this period that
Neill's books, very widely read, were twice withdrawn―in 1937 and again in 1947's
anxiety in this sphere still makes itself felt. You can sense it in the architecture. It is strangely open: common rooms open onto
corridors, no real studies, just rooms for the sixth containing five or six people. It
seemed impossible to be alone with someone―without it feeling secret. They have mixed-age
same-sex dormitories of four or five, and these are clearly a valuable and cohesive force:
the older look after the younger, they stop bullying, you can be with your friends, etc.
Yet, was there not in the enthusiasm of the staff some element of relief that they
were also so, well―safe? Certainly the staff are quite clear, and also worried. They
dislike talking about it. It is not a moral issue exactly but if anyone is caught, they
must leave. The pupils on the other hand, or the half dozen or so I spoke to, did not seem
particularly concerned. But they gave a more vivid picture of staff anxiety: "They
panic easily, especially if there is drink about. They imagine everyone pregnant."
One boy who had been caught but exceptionally, not expelled―"The power of
debate")―said they positively welcomed homosexuals. There are four or five known
homosexuals in mixed-age dormitories who certainly wouldn't be expelled. They're
"ill". I suddenly remember Mr Moorsom describing how he fell in love
with a boy at Bedales in 1903 and walked about with his arms round him and no one minded.
But I realised what was wrong when I wandered unheralded into the girls dormitories one
afternoon. I had wandered at will, and without difficulty, over girls schools before now,
and ov3er other co-educational schools. Nothing had happened. But this afternoon―within
two minutes of entering the building―I was pounced on almost simultaneously from two
sides. In the distance a third figure was advancing at speed. It was like Colditz. In this
area―central to the school's ideology as progressive, one of its earliest traditions―
Bedales was, a sit had been for many years, in the grip of total society fever.
One of the (to an outsider) faintly embarrassing traditions of Bedales is the
"Bedales Jaw". Each evening something not necessarily, indeed
not normally, religious takes place―at this period it would be a reading from Tagore or
Bridges' testament of Beauty―and the the whole school files out and shakes hands with all
the staff―"Goodnight, Alex, goodnight Susan, goodnight Indira..." Sasha Young
loathed this and wouldn't look at the staff when she shook hands, They decided to coerce
her. She would walk out in front of the whole school and not shake hands. She
retaliated by never going to a Bedales Jaw again.
© 1977 Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy