The 'maladjusted child'

Let everyone be subject to the governing
authorities, for there is no authority except
that which God has established. The
authorities that exist have been established
by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against
the authority is rebelling against what God
has instituted, and those who do so will bring
judgment on themselves. — Romans 13: 1-2

I was walking across the golden sand of Treyarnon Beach, near Padstow, about half a step behind my father — a fitting position for one who was officially in disgrace. A few weeks earlier, I had been expelled from Solihull School in Warwickshire for stealing stamp albums from other pupils. And since then, my father had been scouring the country for another school that would accept a 12-year-old boy with "criminal tendencies". No one was interested. It was 1953, in an austere and unforgiving era. There was no second chance for someone so disruptive, for someone destined for the dustbin of society.

"You know there's hope for you?" my father said, turning to me. I might have guessed he had good news. He had returned to our campsite that afternoon, and had greeted me with an unusually exuberant wave as I had walked across the field toward him. For as long as I could remember, he had made me painfully aware of his disappointment with me, and I had come to expect expressions of contempt, derision, and even disgust.

The "hope", my father explained, was a boarding school in Yorkshire, which had been recommended by one of the many schools that had turned me down. The headmaster, who took in delinquents, had agreed to consider me. We would return to Warwickshire, and then drive north, to a place called Wetherby, for an interview.

Years were to pass before my parents came to an understanding of the reasons for my "delinquency", which were to be found in my upbringing, and the serious accidents that accompanied it, rather than in any congenital criminality. The first accident occurred while I was still a crawler, and was run over by my father's car. In fact, I was run over twice: the first time when my father reversed, the second time when he drove forward while trying to figure out what had caused the mysterious "bump". It was only then that I screamed.

In those days, a good child was a quiet child. The last thing anyone wanted was a lot of messy emotion. So when I was taken to hospital — with a broken leg and possibly other injuries that have never been disclosed to me — I was separated from my mother, and not allowed to see her again until I no longer recognized her. Of course, I do not remember any of this. The story has, however, been told to me many times, most recently in 1998.

The second serious accident occurred when I was three or four, and was doused with scalding water by my mother. I was urinating into a drain beneath the kitchen window, and caught the water on the back of my neck as I looked down. Apparently, my mother had had a habit of emptying the teapot into the drain after rinsing it with boiling water. I still carry the scar of that misadventure.

For those who worked and made the grade, the corduroy will never fade.

I was my parents' first son, and expectations for me were high. Sadly, they were expectations I would not meet until long after I had grown up and left England for a new life abroad. I was a thin, pale, and fearful child. I developed an aversion to many of the fatty foods that my parents regarded as essential for good health. If I refused to eat these, my father, who was a dentist, would threaten to get the Mason's gag to open my mouth. Every meal at which meat was served became a hideous ordeal, haunted by the specter of tuberculosis.

Then there were the beatings. I received the worst of these when I was about eight, after I was caught sucking a sweet before lunch. "Can't you do something about it, Harold?" my mother asked with exasperation. Harold certainly could. He took me inside, made me bend over the arm of one of the chairs in the "breakfast room", and gave me the traditional "six of the best" — six blows with a stout stick that left six criss-crossed black bruises across my lower back and buttocks. He then derided me for crying, for not taking my punishment like a man. A couple of days later, while my mother was bathing me, she saw the bruises and asked innocently: "What's all this?" I didn't answer.

The drive north was remarkably pleasant. We reached Wetherby in time for lunch at the Angel Hotel, where I ordered roast pork. To my delight, it arrived in thin, tender slices, without fat. "You ate a good meal," my mother remarked approvingly, after I had finished. I felt like saying: "I would always eat a good meal, if the food weren't fatty." But in 1953 you didn't say things like that to your parents. Besides, it was fat that kept you warm in the winter, wasn't it? If you didn't eat your fat, you would end up in a TB sanatorium with a snowdrift on the end of your bed. And if you still didn't eat your fat, you would have to "sign the book" — to formally declare that you were refusing treatment. And so it went on.

Life was a tragedy, in the sense that we were all locked into a downward spiral from which there could be no escape. There could be no discussion, no compromise. In the days before the "dysfunctional family" was recognized, any psychological problem was confined to the one family member who supposedly had it. This person was then designated the "patient" or, as in my case, the "maladjusted child". The problem was then dealt with in a peremptory fashion, usually by means of a quick fix. As late as 1959, I was being threatened with forcible psychiatric treatment — something I had no intention of sticking around for.

Simple remedies for delinquency from The Wolf Cub's Handbook, 1941

In the late 1940s, in yet another attempt to inculcate the "right attitude" in me, my father put me into the local Wolf Cub pack. As all attempts to teach me to ride a horse had failed, perhaps a bit of "dyb-dyb-dybbing" and "dob-dob-dobbing" would do the trick. It didn't. I hated Wolf Cubbing as much as I hated all the other compulsory activities.

But as we drove up the long driveway to Wennington School on that warm, sunny summer afternoon, there seemed to be the prospect of a brighter future. The driveway, which proved to be full of potholes, passed through fields of crops and grazing cows as it meandered toward what looked like a bleak Georgian mansion. (I would later learn that its real name was Ingmanthorpe Hall.) We parked the car in the courtyard at the rear, and walked toward the nearest flight of stone steps. These led to a terrace and, from there, to a side door in the main building. As we progressed, two children — a boy and a girl — approached us from the opposite direction.

"Hello! We're looking for Kenneth Barnes," my parents said.

The children stared at us with a mixture of awe and incomprehension, said "Er..." and promptly fled.

My parents said later that they had assumed the children were mentally retarded. Actually, they were French. Christine and Eric de Quincy had arrived early for the autumn term, so that they could settle in.

We pressed on, and were within two metres of the side door when it flew open. A short, stocky man with electrified gray hair emerged. He was smiling. "First good sign," I thought. I was even more impressed when he shook my hand. I had expected the withering look to which I had become so accustomed.

My interview, when it came, was also a surprise. Instead of summoning me to an intimidating study, with a ticking clock to measure every second of my embarrassment, Mr Barnes took me on a short tour of the outbuildings and facilities. (The principal attraction was the swimming pool, which was in a sorry state when I saw it in 1998.) As we talked, I trotted out my well-rehearsed remarks. I had stopped collecting stamps, I assured him. I would really appreciate an opportunity "to put the past right".

The interview ended beside the mounting block in the courtyard, the far side of which is shown here. Mr Barnes placed one foot on the block, an elbow on his knee, his head on his hand, and adopted a Rodinesque posture of profound thought. I dithered beside him, wondering whether I should volunteer further information. Later, I heard from my parents that he had returned to them with the remark: "Well, I would never have thought it of him!"

I don't think he ever understood me, and I doubt he suspected anything untoward had happened in our family. Even my parents were unaware of the full extent of my "offending". I didn't tell them until 1998 that, unable to face the lunches at Solihull School, I stole money from them for two years to buy a daily lunch of peanut butter on bread from the school tuck-shop. Feeling unloved, I also ate a lot of sweets, with the inevitable consequence of serious tooth decay. Every time my father checked my teeth, there would be snorts of disgust as he found cavity after cavity.

The afternoon of the interview ended with all of us — Kenneth Barnes, his wife Frances, my parents, my two brothers and me — in the headmaster's sitting room on the second floor of the former stately home. The view was of a flat expanse of Yorkshire farmland, broken only by the mound of an ancient tumulus about half a kilometre away. (See the gallery of photographs on the homepage of this website.) "Well, which one is joining us?" Frances asked, looking inquiringly at the three boys.

*  *  *  *

I would like to be able to say that the story had a happy ending, that Kenneth did more than write another tedious chapter of the cautionary tale — that litany of dire warnings of "difficulties in later life" if I did not mend my ways.

Alas, it was not to be. At Wennington, the warnings tended to come in end-of-term reports, which addressed me in the third person singular. "He must realize..." they invariably began. A stock admonition was: "He must realize that no man is an island, not even Alan Ireland." Barnes seemed to think the play on the words "island" and "Ireland" was clever. Just why he thought that I thought I was an island — "entire of itself" in the words of the poet John Donne — is still not clear to me. It is true that I was poorly socialized. That was hardly surprising, given my background. But it is also true that I was painfully aware of my awkwardness, and wished I could become a more polished performer. Thus, Kenneth's criticism came to sound, to me, like a taunt. The criticism was ironic, anyway, coming from someone whose brusque manner made him a remote, almost unapproachable figure.

It was Barnes who decided I was interested in biology. To my regret, I went along with that decision, partly because I wanted to please him, partly because I thought I should be interested in biology. After all, I had an interest in birdwatching, and an interest in biology seemed to be a logical extension of that, even if, in my case, it lacked any basis in reality. For similar reasons, I took up physics and chemistry, which I hated, and dropped the subjects I really enjoyed — art and French. It was a recipe for demoralization and disaster. I eventually left school in July 1959 without any useful qualifications, and with little or no ability to handle money, use the telephone, drive a car, or find my way around a keyboard — all vital skills in the modern world.

I also felt disillusioned. Wennington School, that "progressive" coeducational boarding school where the pupils called their teachers by their first names, was not the "classless society" that many claim it was. Show me any "classless society", and I will show you a society in which the hierarchy is organized according to different criteria. At Wennington, one's status in the higher forms depended, to a large extent, on the degree of "maturity" one had supposedly achieved. There was, needless to say, no objective measure of this quality, which meant, in practical terms, that some people received unfair preference when privileges were being allocated. Favoritism could creep in under a smokescreen of specious rationalizations that cited an unsuccessful candidate's alleged "unreadiness for responsibility". The whole business could be incredibly demeaning to those who missed out.

I would also challenge the assertion that Barnes was consistent in the application of his educational principles. He wasn't. I saw stunning confirmation of that on the night he raided Pasteur dormitory — a dormitory that was occupied, in 1954, by 13- and 14-year-old boys. Suddenly, the light was on, and there was a cry from Barnes of "Two boys in one bed, eh?" With that, he seized the wretches he had caught in flagrante delicto, dragged them into the guest room next door and resoundingly slippered them. At least, that's what I think he did. All I heard was the thwack, thwack, thwack of the blows, while Barnes loudly explained, for the benefit of his shocked audience, that although he didn't believe in corporal punishment it was the only kind of punishment to be meted out in cases like this.

There were certain things that Barnes would not tolerate. If practices he perceived as signs of incipient homosexuality constituted one, serious challenges to his authority constituted another. Indeed, the school's equivalent of a charge of heresy was a declaration that one was "in conflict with authority". Even if Barnes said something stupid, it was politic to remain silent. Otherwise, one could find oneself, within a matter of hours, waiting for a taxi in the courtyard — as outspoken pupil Jeremy Robinson did after one memorable altercation [1].

I have always been curious about Barnes: a person who was precocious enough to make a model electric motor in 1915, but crustily dismissive of "radio sets" in the late 1950s; who wrote books about sex, but didn't understand that sexual orientation is not amenable to corporal punishment; who initially did so much to help me, but went on to become the most negative influence in my life. In the late 1970s, I bought copies of two of his books — The Involved Man, George Allen and Unwin (1969), and A Vast Bundle of Opportunities, George Allen and Unwin (1975) — which were being remaindered. I looked for answers to the conundrum, but was disappointed to find what appear to be expansions of his Sunday-evening lectures at Wennington School — those quasi-sermons in which he would sometimes expatiate upon the putative difference between those who were "individuals" and those who were "individualists". (I, of course, was one of the latter, unregenerate types, to be guided by Kenneth toward true personhood.) The voice in the books is a relentlessly earnest voice from another age, soliloquizing on a myriad of intensely moral topics. I have picked a couple of pages at random from the The Involved Man — Pages 218 and 219 — in which he discourses on Albert Camus, deplores the attitude of reckless overtakers, cites Paul Tillich in The Courage to Be, moves on to the Christian doctrine of the Fall, disagrees with Plato's dualism, mentions Einstein, Newton and Ptolemy, and finally touches on "the isolation and despair of a Gethsemane". Whew! Is it possible to read this stuff?

I would be more prepared to persevere if I didn't occasionally find statements that seem, to me, to be incontrovertibly wrong, such as his statement in the middle of the same two pages: "Every nation is committed to the pursuit of peace. . ." I then begin to doubt the soundness of his observations and reasoning, and to wonder whether I shouldn't, after all, be reading something a little more focused and coherent.

I am also disturbed by Barnes' cavalier attitude to the truth in his history of Wennington School (Energy Unbound, William Sessions Limited, 1980), in which I am ludicrously (though anonymously) "rehabilitated". By interweaving fantasy with the facts I supplied for the passage about me, he takes a liberty that is suggestive of a proprietorial attitude to former pupils. In all matters, his perspective has to prevail. Yet ironically, he (correctly) criticizes the Nazis for "creat[ing] a sacred history in which a lie became a 'fact'" (The Involved Man, Page 197). How true it is that power corrupts, albeit subtly in this case.

*  *  *  *

I have always been impressed by the cultural debt to Germany, and to Nazi Germany in particular, of many of those who were young adults in the 1930s. I think there was more demented Darwinism at the dinner table in Dorridge, where the Ireland family lived from 1945 to 1958, than there was at Berchtesgaden. If we were not being instructed in the draconian regulations of subarctic sanatoria, we were being treated to discourses on the "survival of the fittest"[2], or regaled with stories about how the Spartans exposed their children on the mountainside to weed out those of inferior stock.

At Treyarnon Beach, where we camped for about six weeks nearly every summer, my father would wrestle with me to remove my shirt — so that my "lily-white", puny body would be exposed to the ambrosial sunshine. Though sunbathing can't be described as a peculiarly German practice, it was first popularized by Heinrich Pudor in Nackende Menschen: Jauchzen der Zukunft (Naked Mankind: Exultant Future) in 1893. And it is telling, I think, that Britain's oldest naturist club, founded in 1929, is called Spielplatz (German for playground). For good measure, my father set up a sunlamp at home so that we could also sunbathe in the winter months, while wearing those grotesque goggles one sometimes sees in archival film of the first hydrogen bomb tests. The result of all that sunbathing, for me, has been basal cell carcinoma and a malignant melanoma that would have killed me if I hadn't caught it early.[3]

At Wennington School, one finds echoes of the Germanic obsession with health and hygiene in the "morning dip" — a supervised swim at 7am for all those who didn't mind cavorting naked under the watchful eye of KCB — and in the long, bracing hikes in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District of Westmorland, which conventionally ended in primordial mystical experiences on windswept mountaintops. Then there were the obligatory green corduroy shorts that made the boys look like unkempt members of the Hitler Youth.

Though there was much at Wennington that seemed conducive to an appreciation of nature, the "involved" Kenneth Barnes was curiously detached from it. I was surprised to learn, for example, that he could not distinguish a rook from a crow. Insofar as he thought of nature, he thought of it, I suspect, as something that was putty in man's hands. An interesting exercise is to go through Energy Unbound and count the number of drawings and photographs that are either directly or indirectly associated with the felling of trees — that quintessential activity of the rugged, colonial-era "pioneer".

Back home, my mother was heavily into Health and Beauty. I once went to Wembley Stadium in London to watch her and several thousand other women twirl clubs and colored ribbons, to the accompaniment of rousing music. The only thing missing from the scene was a huge swastika banner in the background. Later, my mother took off for Germany in her red MG sportscar to study Medau — another physical fitness regime for women.

One can find an exposition of the intellectual basis of many of these ideas, attitudes and practices in To-day and Tomorrow: the Testing Period of the White Race, by J.H. Curle, which ran through five editions between 1926 and 1927 — a fair measure of its popularity. That is not to say that everyone who lived in the thirties subscribed to Curle's belief that "as our blood deteriorates, so does the fibre of our mind", but that the philosophy of eugenics seems to have influenced almost everyone to some extent, including those who ended up in the embrace of either communism or the Catholic Church.

On the subject of Germany, Curle writes with prescience: "If they pay reparations, the German people must discipline themselves for fifty years. In those years they will be working harder than the rest of us; thinking deeper; weeding out the physically and mentally unfit (emphasis added); and so, through reaction, may emerge the fittest nation of all. If I read things aright, they are going to do more for Heredity and Evolution in this century than we are; and these are therefore liable to do more for them (Page 61)."

Another book that says a lot about contemporary attitudes, which we now prefer to forget about, is Britain's Jewish Problem, by M.G. Murchin (a pseudonym), which was published by Hurst & Blackett in 1939. (See When one considers this and other, similar literature, one realizes that Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts were not the un-British aberration that many suppose they were. In the 1930s, Mosley represented the far right of what was, in reality, a political/philosophical continuum. He was condemned for his blatant, bully-boy tactics by those who nevertheless accepted the premise of fascism: the moral right of the powerful to compel obedience — and to victimize those who refused, or failed, to conform.

*  *  *  *

For me, life at home was better after I was enrolled at Wennington. My father was finally disabused of the notion that corporal punishment improves character, and never hit me again. Mercifully, the Spartans also respected the changed situation, and didn't make any more appearances at the meal table. There was even a sort of apology: an admission from my father that, when I was little, he had given me "no peace". But disappointment hung heavily in the air after the debacle of my upper-fifth and sixth-form years. I needed at least six months to decide what to do, but was put under constant pressure to find a career quickly. There was, I recall, some talk about "mother birds pushing baby birds out of nests", and I was informed that "our friends think we are too lenient with you". If I had friends, I was told, that was only because I had "freak value". (In the 1950s, those in "authority" looked askance at almost any deviation from the norm. Having hair that touched one's ears, for example, was seen as a serious threat to social cohesion, if not to the order of the universe.)

Now and then, my father would say, gloomily, "Have you considered the army?" — a question I found slightly insulting, because I knew that he considered the army a repository for people of low intelligence. (He had been drafted into the air force during the war, but had continued to practise dentistry.) Then, because they believed I needed structure and discipline in my life, my parents decided that the merchant navy was the ideal place for me. Feeling crushed, I went to a recruiting office in Birmingham and picked up a brochure, which contained enough information to convince me that a life at sea would be intolerable. In the meantime, I had a succession of what my brother Robert succinctly described as "piddling" jobs, including exactly one and a half days as a sales assistant at W.H. Smiths booksellers in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Another proposal that was floated — until I flatly refused to consider it — was that I attend a finishing school in Switzerland. I was then accused of having "a thing" about school. And for once, it was an accusation that was accurate. Since I had been packed off to school at the age of three or four, because my mother had twins to care for, and couldn't cope with me as well, I had always regarded school as an imposition. One of my earliest memories is of being abandoned at a nearby school, of trying to escape, and of being caught by a veritable tide of incoming older pupils and swept back into the building. I don't think I have ever been so terrified.


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The last end-of-term report from Barnes began with the words "He has made a mess of things", and was a minor essay of unmitigated condemnation. Here, as in some of his other ad hoc writings, was the "unedited Barnes": crude, cutting and slapdash, without thought for either the utility or likely consequences of what he was saying. Since one's last report was often used as a reference, I have sometimes wondered whether he tried to damage my prospects — to vindictively confirm the prediction that I would have "difficulties in later life". I think that those who repeatedly make a prediction eventually develop a vested interest in seeing it come true, even if they avowedly desire a different outcome.

I eventually went to London to look for a job as a journalist. I tramped from office to office, carrying a clipping of an article I had written for the Birmingham Mail about a trial trip I had made in a North Atlantic trawler. I had no success, but enjoyed the time I was able to spend with Judith Viall — a girl who had been in the sixth form with me at Wennington. I would have stayed in London if I hadn't noticed a small ad in a journalism magazine: "Overland working expedition to the Far East via India. Three vacancies." I replied to it, and later arranged to meet Cliff Foster, a journalist from the Bedfordshire Times, at a place called Bobby's Bar, just off Piccadilly Circus. From there, we went to a sleazy subterranean nightspot called the Buccaneer Club, where we arranged to meet again at yet another bar in Kettering, Northamptonshire. I don't know how we managed to plan our trip, as alcohol repeatedly shipwrecked all rational discussion. But plan it we did, and on February 9, 1960, I left Victoria Station for Istanbul. A few days earlier, I had said goodbye to Judy, now fixed forever in my mind as a pretty 19-year-old waving to me forlornly from the window of a slowly departing train.

I fully intended to return to England, but never did — except for visits in 1974 and 1998. If I had acted on impulse, I would have returned from Australia in 1961. But impulse was always checked by the thought: "What would I do there? What do I have to offer anyone?" Far from having the "superiority complex" that Kenneth Barnes always accused me of having, I felt worthless. And in the end, I decided to move on...

[1] I witnessed part of this incident. We had all been given an inane pep talk by KCB in the music/dining room, and were filing out — through the common room and into the hall. Jeremy Robinson was in front, I was behind him, Dominique Bon was behind me, and KCB was bringing up the rear. Just as we reached the door to the hall, Dominique bounded past me and exclaimed, "Well, what did you think of that, Jeremy?" Jeremy, his jaw set, replied, "I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my whole life." Unfortunately, KCB overheard the comment and pursued Jeremy down the hall, shouting "Jeremy! Jeremy!" His remark, which any one of us could have made, cost him his place in the school.
[2] Term introduced in Principles of Biology (1864), by Herbert Spencer.
[3] "Cancer Research UK is particularly concerned about the reports that children are using sunbeds. Under 16s should never use them." — Press Release, May 1, 2006.


1. Wennington School, which appeared to have an assured future in the early 1960s, ran into difficulties in later life and closed amid some acrimony in 1975. Kenneth Charles Barnes died in 1998, and is reportedly missed by few people.

2. My father, Harold Graham Ireland, died in Cheltenham Hospital in 2009, shortly after declaring: "I'm not going to let that black girl [a nurse] give me any treatment!"


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Michael has another Wennington blog, Google around a bit and you'll find it. It's very good - almost as good as this one. I, too, am one who has had to shake the dust off his feet, not just from WS but also from a dysfunctional family.

  3. it is a great source of fun for adults and the children.

  4. Your life is full of tragedies i must say and you are quite a strong person who bore all the problems without screaming. I fell sorry about the accidents that you had at you early ages but i am sure those accidents would be giving you the Most Outstanding Epic Gifs Ever to do something for being a man of today as you are now.

    1. Is this meant to be amusing? Or a compliment to Alan? Or both? [OP scratches head.]

  5. The important thing which should be consider during teaching is to understand what is in the heart of his student, he should show empathy and when he will be able to understand the mind of the students he will definitely handle and overcome the students problems and is there to help.

  6. i read the whole article after reading i come to know that your life is full of tragedies. Same situation with me but laws of nature are absolute . we have to bow before them my sympathies always with you.

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