Sunday, 13 July 2014

Worth Remembering

I have never thought of myself as having repressed memories, but on Thursday night, while watching the wonderful production of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at Grange Park Opera, an incident from my childhood came flooding back.  It was the scene in Act 3 that caused my flashback – the third Act of the opera is set in the elderly Countess’ bedroom – where Herman, the lead character, hides until the old lady returns from the ball. He wakes her and makes demands that ultimately cause both her and his death.  The image on stage triggered my memory. When I was about 14, and at an all-girls boarding school, some young men found their way one night into the boarding house where I lived. They must have wandered through the dark house, peering into shady rooms, until they located a girls’ dormitory, by chance the one in which I slumbered. The room was compartmentalised, like a cattle byre, with each girl given a cubicle with a bed and chest of drawers, these booths were secluded from the open corridor that ran down the centre of the room by a flimsy curtain. I don’t know why the youths chose my sleeping bay – odd given that it was not the nearest to the door – but I was woken to a hand over my mouth while someone else tried to pull down my bedclothes.

All ended well, in that my modesty remained intact (I was wearing pyjamas) and I managed to make sufficient noise, without scaring them into hurting me, by deliberately changing the tempo and volume of my speech, to wake a couple of my fellow pupils, who pulled back the curtain, startling my would-be-assailants – who fled. The young men clearly weren’t very bright (not just because they chose me to be their victim, as opposed to the recognised school-beauty who slept in the cubicle opposite mine)…they returned to the school the following day and asked the lady at the office to return their shoes, which they had left in the flowerbed outside the window before they climbed in. Needless to say, the attempted reclamation of this evidence resulted in their arrest.

There is no doubt that the school feared a scandal and that the incident was hushed-up – I suspect that no parents, other than those of the immediately impacted girls, were notified.  I remember being interviewed by the police (they were sent to see me at my home at the start of the holidays). The housemistress of my boarding house, perhaps concerned at her apparent lack of pastoral care and awareness of what was going on in her house, insinuated that I had invited the youths to come and meet me. How I could have done so is beyond me. For a while she tried to make out that the incident was my fault – I was a fourteen-year-old pre-pubescent girl. My flat chested, gamin figure (for which I was teased by the more visibly mature girls in my year) seemed to me a very unlikely object of lust. The intimate questions, which the police were compelled to ask, made me squirm with embarrassment and some quite frankly I didn’t understand. To this day I have no idea who the two men were or what eventually happened to them. The school seemed more concerned with keeping the matter under wraps and had little or no interest in the impact that the experience had on the victims – myself and the other girls who were terrified that night. 

As an aside, I went to the same school as Baroness Butler-Sloss – albeit a little later than her. As an “old girl” and a rising member of The Establishment she was invited to come and speak to us while I was there. Her talk was both memorable and inspiring.

Baroness Butler-Sloss - picture from BBC files
With hindsight, and perhaps partially influenced by the current UK media coverage over the loss or possible destruction of Home Office files pertaining to a supposed child abuse network, I have begun considering how the break-in and disturbance in the dorm was handled. People in positions of authority tried to conceal or twist events to suit their own purposes. Clearly, what happened to us is nothing, compared to the horrific experiences of sexual abuse suffered by children at the hands of Jimmy Savile and others.  However, I think that the adults at my school did not behave in a caring or supportive way. Perhaps they are a reflection of what was considered acceptable in the 1970’s and '80’s, but I believe that it is the responsibility of those in authority to see that matters are handled in a compassionate, appropriate and principled manner.

Vasili Kirillovich Nechitailo 1915-1980
painting of School Girl Ksyusha 1955

The current political scandal and concerns over an establishment cover-up is lifting the carpet on some murky ways of behaving in the past – why did nobody look deeper when, 20 years ago, Ted Heath’s former Chief Whip, Tim Fortescue, commented in the documentary, “Westminster’s Secret Service – the Role of the Whip”:
“Anyone with any sense who is in trouble would come to the whips and tell them the truth, “I am in a jam – can you help?” It might be debt, it might be scandal involving small boys or any kind of scandal that a member seems likely to be mixed up in… We would do anything we could, because we would store up brownie points. That sounds a pretty nasty reason but if we could get a chap out of trouble he will do what you ask for ever more”?
Ted Heath, former UK Prime Minister
appointed Tim Fortescue as Chief Whip
Power enables abuse.  The words of Lord Acton, written in a letter in 1887 to Bishop Mandell Creighton (but probably inspired by the words of Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine in his essay “France and England: a Vision of the Future” published in 1848) ring true: 
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The experience of my own small incident has got me thinking about the abuse of power and the danger of allowing the status quo in any environment to go unchallenged when things clearly need to be changed.  There has been much psychological research into the influence of power on behaviour – one notable experiment took place in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of people, arbitrarily assigned as guards over others, swiftly began to abuse their detainees. Participants were both horrified and surprised at the manner in which they behaved. Fortunately individual human nature is not always swayed towards self-interest and sadism when people are given power over others – another, more recent piece of research, undertaken by Katherine (Katy) A DeCelles of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, looks into whether power always results in self-serving, corrupt behaviour or if there is a difference in the way some people respond compared to others. DaCelles instructed two groups, one of undergraduates and the other adult workers, explaining that they had a shared pool of 500 points and that they should select between zero and ten points for each of themselves to win a lottery. The higher the number of points the greater the probability of winning, but, in the event that members of the group claimed more points than the total available in the pool, the lottery would be cancelled. Prior to participating she asked some participants to write an essay about an ordinary day and others to describe a time when they had been in power/felt powerful. The authors of conventional days on average took 6.5 points, those who had described powerful experiences took between 7.5 points (if they had a low moral identity score) and 5.5 (if their moral identity score was high). Clearly having a moral identity (i.e. knowing your personal values and believing that there is importance in being “caring”, “fair”, “generous” and “compassionate”) has a fundamental impact on the way in which we lead and interact with others.

17th century carving
over a door of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan,
If we want to make our world, our businesses, our institutions better, with leaders who have integrity as well as influence, we need to find a way to support and encourage those with a strong moral identity. Part of the problem is perhaps that these people do not feel comfortable in the world as it is. In addition we are all prone to making judgements based on first appearances. Often those with a conscience are also self conscious and so do not create the best/most impactful initial impression within the pressurised environment of an interview or assessment centre. The best candidates can be overlooked, but Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, believes that she has found a way to help people create a better impression, as explained in this impactful TED talk:

I find it interesting that certain physical actions result in the release of hormones that impact our stress levels and/or self-confidence and hence how others view us. Our bodies control our minds just as much as our brains control our physical movements. Amy Cuddy’s ability to turn her own life around, through applying the behaviour she espouses in her talk, is inspiring.

Areas of the brain responsible for movement
It is possible for lives to be changed and for people to do things that they perhaps never thought they would be capable of doing. I shall end where I began in this piece…at Grange Park Opera. The singer who sang the role of Herman has perhaps the most powerful voice I have ever heard. He is the American tenor Carl Tanner and his personal history is inspirational – he was born into a modest working-class family in Arlington, Virginia.  He worked as a truck driver and a bounty hunter, before deciding to pursue his dreams – with only $75 and a few clothes in a bag, he moved to the Big Apple. One evening, attracted by the sound of singing, he stopped at Bianchi and Margarita’s, a restaurant in New York City frequented by the operatic set. The owner recognised that he could sing from the manner in which he spoke and let him entertain the diners. Richard Gaddes, the head of Santa Fe Opera, was eating at the restaurant that night and was so impressed with the tone of Tanner’s voice that he offered him a role in one of his operas and so a great singing career was born. A film is soon to be made of Tanner’s story, with Jack Black playing the title role – I personally think Tanner should play himself.

Grange Park Opera production of Queen of Spades
Herman played by Carl Tanner

Life is at times stranger than fiction and that is worth remembering, as are Abraham Lincoln's words on power and adversity:
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
Crocuses pushing through snow


  1. Hello Kate,

    Thank you for another wonderful blog last week. Thoroughly enjoyable, superbly written as always and it also brought back memories to me too of my student days spent studying the works of Pushkin. The Queen of Spades was one of my favourites and it's central theme of human avarice is as pertinent today as it was when he wrote it, maybe even more so in fact. I will dig out a copy of Pikovaya Dama from my bookshelves for a long overdue re-read!

    I look forward to your next instalment.

    With very best wishes,


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