INTERVIEW: James Scudamore on repression, boarding school and ‘English Monsters’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author James Scudamore on the research process behind his novel English Monsters (Jonathan Cape, 2020).

I’d like to begin by asking how you approached researching the English boarding school system. I know that some of Max’s experiences in the novel reflect some of your own experiences of being educated in this environment, but I wondered what research you undertook to help reflect on, contextualise and apply your experiences to the novel. How did your memories feed into the narrative design, and did you find a tension developing between your wider research and the truth of your own experience?

As you say I had powerful memories of my own to draw on, but given the subject matter of this novel – abuse, repression, denial – I also wanted to investigate the act of remembering, and how it evolves. I think people are always in negotiation with their pasts, haggling out a version of events that explains the present, and I seem to have been exploring this phenomenon since I started writing. All four of my novels have ended up being concerned in some way with the ongoing revision of individual memory, and with how collective memory is fixed, challenged and revised.

This may have something to do with my own experience: my memories of the boarding school I attended between 10 and 13 were overturned completely about a decade after I had left when it emerged that sexual abuse had been rife there. I found myself seeing past events that had puzzled me for years in a completely new way. And this was such a momentous process for me that I guess I wanted to dramatise it in English Monsters. But I was also very conscious of the need to get beyond my memories, and my school. For one thing, as I am constantly trying to impress on writing students, ‘just because something happens to you doesn’t make it interesting’. For another, I wanted to make absolutely sure that anything I wrote didn’t infringe the privacy of any of my former classmates or their families. So I read the work of leading psychologists in the field of ‘Boarding School Syndrome’, much of which contains powerfully compelling first-hand accounts. And I did a lot of research into the psychological effects of abuse. And I made stuff up.

As to whether there was a tension between that research and my own experience – no. Anyone who has been through the system depicted in the novel will recognise the experiences it describes. They’re very universal across different establishments (within a very narrow social milieu, of course), which is why the tropes of the ‘boarding school novel’ have become a set of such instantly recognisable clichés. A more interesting tension perhaps is between the reader who hasn’t been through that system and this writer who has. The challenge I set myself was to try to get beyond all those received ideas and communicate the sheer strangeness of that environment and its customs. To put it under the microscope by stepping back from it and defamiliarising it. That, at any rate, was the goal.

It feels to me as though your treatment of the boarding school system, particularly of its rituals of cruelty, has a bearing on our understanding of our current Eton-educated politicians. Do you feel there may be a connection between the roots of the systemic cruelty and violence in English Monsters (alongside the secrecy that underpins it) and the government’s attacks on research into historical abuse allegations and colonial violence?

One of my primary concerns when writing the novel was to resist binaries as much as I could. For example, I was struck by the notion that someone who hadn’t been abused by a teacher who then subsequently turned out to have been abusive to other pupils might have perfectly intact, fond memories of that teacher. What does it mean when that teacher then turns out to have abused someone else? Does it invalidate those fond memories completely? Perhaps. But I wanted as much as possible to avoid painting characters as archetypally good or bad, and inhabit the grey areas of different individuals’ divergent memories and experiences.

With all of that in mind, I think it’s too sweeping to suggest that there exists a deliberate establishment-led ‘attack’ on research into abuse allegations or colonial violence. I choose to hope that the pushback isn’t as concerted as that. Nevertheless, if you personally have done rather well as a product of the system, as so many of these politicians have, then you are going to find it that much harder to find the empathy to interrogate that system on behalf of those who didn’t. And I absolutely think that the privately-educated tribe is capable of breathtaking insouciance when it comes to reckoning with serious historical wrongs – consider the Prime Minister’s ‘spaffed up the wall’ remarks about money spent on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, for example (this from someone who attended a prep school with a well-documented history of sexual abuse) – and that it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that some of that attitude derives from a feeling of protectiveness over the system that formed them.

I do think it would help a lot if some people didn’t feel so personally attacked whenever the past is questioned in this way. I find that phenomenon so odd. Why is there this default to hostility and insecurity? It’s the binaries thing again, I guess. This polarising tendency that despises nuance and complexity, and places defending the tribe above the reasonable desire to make a better world. I can’t bear it.

I wonder if there’s a link there between that lack of nuance and the proliferation of repression or self-denial, which feels to me like a very English phenomenon (‘No sex please, we’re British’). I’m curious as to whether, while researching for the novel, you began to speculate on where some of the cultural origins of our sexual repression might lie? To what extent do you feel sexual repression is a specifically British hang-up, as reflected by a number of the characters in English Monsters? Is there an extent to which the abuses described in the novel can be attributed to this kind of repression?

My dictionary defines repression as ‘the action, process, or result of suppressing into the unconscious or of actively excluding from the conscious mind unacceptable memories, impulses, or desires.’ I don’t think that’s a specifically British or English trait. It takes different forms in different places. I remember being struck by the pervasiveness of the British version having spent years being educated in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean that a version of it doesn’t exist over there (for example) – look at Bolsonaro’s attitudes towards homosexuality, or towards the historical mistreatment of indigenous people.

But I do think that Britain did an incredible job in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of founding institutions that enshrine and perpetuate it. The sexual repression is just part of a larger picture which is so familiar we almost don’t need to go into it. All the ‘stiff upper lip’ stuff. The way we responded to the trauma of two world wars by telling people they just had to put on a suit and wear a poppy. The hardwired belief that you’ll only be successful if you learn to sever yourself from your emotions, or that empathy is a sign of weakness. The list goes on. I think it’s changed quite a lot in the last twenty years or so. That was one of the reasons why it felt like the right time to write this book. The emotional landscape it depicts feels like history to me now (which isn’t to say everyone has caught up).

Also, don’t forget that there are advantages to repression for many. One of the darkest things about the worst perpetrators of sexual abuse in schools is how adept they were at weaponising shame to their advantage. My hunch is that they were so familiar with it themselves that they became very adept at bringing it out in others. Which is why telling anybody what had happened to them became so impossible for so many victims, and why the truth of so much sexual abuse suffered in schools remained buried for so long.

I think that hints at interesting connection between causality and the extent to which behaviours are learnt and adapted. I feel there’s an extent to which Simon and the other characters are painted as products of their environment, as the almost inevitable conclusions of cause and effect (reinforced by the repeated motif of computer programming). I wonder if this is a view of human beings that you share as an individual, and whether you found that this idea was strengthened or challenged while you were researching and designing English Monsters.

I wanted to explore the different effects of certain experiences on different personality types. Simon is affected in a more debilitating way by what happens to him than another character like Luke might be under the same circumstances. Luke is portrayed as a ‘successful’ product of the system in that sense, because he takes the fight to whatever is thrown at him. Which, paradoxically, makes him less ‘programmable’. Simon internalises things a lot more, so on the surface, appears more susceptible to grooming. But of course it turns out to be more complicated than that.

There’s a line in the novel – ‘children don’t analyse, they only experience’ – which you might say encapsulates my view of why physical or sexual abuse of the young does quite as much damage as it does. Children simply don’t have the tools to step back and evaluate what has happened to them. And I wanted to find a way to communicate the sheer incomprehensibility of suddenly finding yourself the object of adult sexual desire when you are a child. The monstruous unfairness of that abuse of power. Simon takes refuge in computers because they offer a reassurance that combats that incomprehensibility, and all the terror that comes with it. He says of them: ‘I like that when you program them correctly, they do exactly what you want them to. And if they don’t, there’s always a reason why.’

There’s so much more to discuss about the moral questions raised by English Monsters, but instead I’d like to close by trying to contextualise the novel within the broader framework of English literature (more specifically, literature about England) to which it belongs. The novel is replete with intertextual references, from its Shakespearean title through to the ‘boarding school novels’ you referred to earlier and on into the English ghost story tradition. What I’d like to know is whether you approached English Monsters with the intent of writing into a space created within English literature, a void perhaps reflecting our inability as a society to deal with internal trauma.

That’s a generous question, and I think that if I were to say ‘yes’ to it I might be guilty of criminal self-aggrandisement. But I didn’t shy away from those intertextual references, and they did end up peppering the whole novel. And I did feel that I had something to say about trauma, and how unaddressed it goes in some circles.

I alighted on the title quite early, though I initially wanted to quote more fully from the Shakespeare and call it These English Monsters. I liked the way that that seemed to communicate an almost gossipy tone, and how it possibly hinted at my desire to avoid seeing things in a binary way as discussed above (we went for the snappier title in the end). The quote is from Henry V and is used by one of the teachers in the novel to try to inculcate an unshakeable sense of loyalty in his pupils. From there I thought of all the other ways in which literary texts are used at schools and on curricula in order to try to form people, or their attitudes. And yes, I brought in school stories, war poetry, fantasy, ghost stories. T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is another touchstone – it is being put on as the school play in the novel, which I liked because of all its references to the inexorable turning of the wheel of fate. And the fact that it’s about people going out to commit a murder based on something they’ve overheard (a reference which will only make sense if you’ve read the novel).

There was another reason too, which is that I remembered how integral my early reading was to the experience of getting through boarding school. How certain novels were indispensable friends to me at that time. And I suppose I wanted to pay tribute to them. Reading books like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The Picture of Dorian Gray at school gave me my first inkling of the way that the alternate worlds of good novels can not only provide escape hatches from the real world but also more resonant and truthful representations of it than anything more documentary.

James Scudamore is the author of the novels The Amnesia Clinic, Heliopolis, Wreaking and English Monsters. He has received the Somerset Maugham Award and been nominated for the Costa First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Man Booker Prize. His journalism and short fiction have appeared in Zembla, 1843 Magazine, Condé Nast Traveller, Prospect, The Sunday Times Magazine, Time Out and Tin House. He has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the City University of Hong Kong, and is currently on the faculty of the International MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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