A story for immigrants: the tragic fate of the Anglo-Italians in the Second World War


Cesidio di Ciacca and his family, fish and chip shop owners in East Lothian. Two years after the photo was taken, Cesidio and hundreds of others were expelled from Britain as dangerous aliens. He died on the Arandora Star.

ON 2 July 1940 the SS Arandora Star was torpedoed off north-west Ireland. The liner was carrying civilian “enemy aliens”  from Britain to internment camps in Canada. Nearly 800 of them drowned. Some were German Jews, but most were Italians: grocers, ice-cream vendors, waiters and chefs, many of whom had lived all their lives in Britain.

Their families survived, but even now the memories of the deaths of their menfolk and the way neighbours turned on on them, looting shops and smashing windows, are raw. As one of the Arandora Star victims’ descendants asks – how would Britons behave today to the outsiders in their communities?

My story on the sinking of the Arandora Star and the cruelties inflicted on the Anglo-Italian community during World War Two is in this week’s Newsweek magazine – read it here.

Why we should turn our backs on boarding schools

Review for the Observer, published 7 June 201511312829_10153425389710746_2908587241061870537_o

Boarding School Syndrome: the Psychological Trauma of the “Privileged” Child by Joy Schaverien
Routledge £27.99 

I once knew an American psychoanalyst who worked in a Bangkok practice, specialising in expats. He’d first come to east Asia on contract for an international church whose missionaries kept getting into trouble. He never went home: there was more than enough work. “Specifically,” he said, “with people like you. Middle-aged, middle-class Brits who went to your crazy private schools may just about be the most damaged social sub-group I’ve ever come across.”

It’s long been known that the ancient British practice of sending young children, rich and poor, off into the care of strangers is not wholly safe. The great “public” schools worried the Victorians as much or more than did the workhouses: three parliamentary commissions sat in the 19th century to look at the financial frauds, riots and astonishing numbers of deaths – from suicides, assaults by teachers and fellow-pupils, starvation and epidemics – in the schools of the wealthy. Tom Brown’s Schooldays only scraped the surface.

In the 20th century a clutch of authors, from George Orwell to Roald Dahl, wrote in their different ways about systemic cruelty, psychological and physical, in the schools and of its wider effects. One of those was the establishment of the principle, among the elite and the ordinary, that to have been brutalised at a boarding school was key to becoming the right sort of Briton – one that might run an Empire or a corporation, or a cricket team. Naturally, as the proven best way to educate a ruling caste, the system spread across the English-speaking world.

Psychology seem to have taken a long time to catch up with the issue, perhaps because Freud famously dismissed most of his child patients’ allegations of abuse by adults as fantasy. Given the importance the boarding school class had and still has in running modern Britain – from the City to Westminster, not forgetting the BBC – that seems to have been an omission. Joy Schaverien coined the term “Boarding School Syndrome” only a decade ago, though she follows in the footsteps of Nick Duffell, a psychotherapist who started work in the field in 1990 and wrote a passionate and influential book about the wounds boarding can inflict, The Making of Them.

Duffell is himself a “boarding school survivor” – his own term – and that inevitably fuels his work. But Professor Schaverien, a Jungian psychoanalyst, did not go to boarding school:  it was as a practitioner that she became intrigued, noting how often boarding featured in the past of surprising numbers of her patients. That makes her book – an academic work, academically priced, though a gripping read – all the more important. There is a fevered debate going on now about private boarding schools, with arguments about class and unfair privilege mixed up with a bewildering range of beliefs about children’s emotional health. Schaverien brings a clear eye and the experience of 25 years collecting data to an issue that should concern everyone worried about how children fare in professional care – which is, of course, what boarding school is.

She’s not impartial. In Britain, you don’t have to have gone to a private boarding school to be affected by them and their product. Schaverien’s experience comes from her father, who, in old age, told his family how he still ached at memories of being left at his boarding school in Brighton, in 1916. Aged just six, the fact that he arrived in short trousers and wearing a velour hat with elastic under the chin ensured that he was savagely bullied from the first minute. “If I was so precious that Mother dressed me this way, why then did she part with me?” he was still wondering, 70 years later.

That’s by no means the most upsetting story to be found in Schaverien’s awful case studies. But it does go to the heart of the issue, both for angry ex-boarders, their spouses and children and anyone bemused by the system. I’ve talked and corresponded with all of those since l started writing for this newspaper about sexual and psychological abuse in British boarding schools, state and private.  The hundreds of emails containing allegations make it pretty clear that the schools of the elite suffered the same cover-ups and the same astonishing failings in regulation and policing as did the hospitals, care homes and young offenders’ prisons. The difference? As several correspondents put it, in anger or amusement:  posh people’s parents paid to have them abused.

That, of course, is what most hurt Hymie Schaverien, and thousands of others. “Boarders cannot console themselves with the thought that their parents did not want them to go,” Professor Schaverien states. The parents chose to send them from home into hell or prison – words her patients frequently use – and so to break the bond, the attachment, with their child . Quality of attachment – the crucial establishment of trust and security through a primary carer  – has been the basis of child development psychology for half a century.

Boarding schools could not have broken or redirected healthy attachment more effectively, as Schaverien illustrates. From the moment the parent drove away, a child had to adjust to the fact that not only was privacy and safety no longer guaranteed – let alone the consolation of a hug – but that their parents had chosen this future. John Bowlby, the psychoanalyst famous for first coming up with attachment theory in the 1960s, described public school as part of “the time-honoured barbarism required to produce English gentlemen”. Bowlby boarded: he was against it.

Schaverien has, of course, accounts of children who enjoyed boarding school: often, patients inform her, that was because home life was so deficient in love or structure that the necessary attachments were better made at school. It’s hard not to conclude that boarding schools were meant for exactly this: to replace infantile loyalties to Mummy with the bonds that tie you to the team. It worked. But the side-effects of this abrupt intervention in a 6 or 8 year old’s development could be savage: symptoms that a therapist in boarding school syndrome addresses are problems with anger, depression, anxiety, failure to sustain relationships, fear of abandonment, substance abuse and so forth. A common effect is amnesia: many of Schaverien’s patients – and my correspondents – have sad gaps where, in a normal childhood and adolescence, there would be a wealth of memory. Forgetting the pain is yet another coping mechanism.

In a fascinating account of four years analysis with one deeply traumatised patient, “Theo”, Schaverien takes us to the point where she believes Boarding School Syndrome is born. On the way we see Theo – often using drawings – recover memories of awful injustice. That is a key issue for many boarders – children, she says, have an ethical sensibility from an early age and it is traumatic when something – like brutality on the part of an adult – violates it. Trauma affects the normal development of a child’s brain.

Eventually, and in Theo’s case this happened dramatically, a traumatised child, exhausted by perpetual fear, may be forced for their own survival to separate their selves – the normal, vulnerable home self, and the coping, armoured boarding-school self. That’s the Syndrome, and though sceptics of Jungian theory may be dubious, my correspondence is full of people who talk unhappily of the child they left behind at the school, their other self who was never able to grow up. It’s a profound effect, an “encapsulation of self…that may last a lifetime”, Schaverien says.

It’s obvious enough that these institutions, full of emotionally needy children and incompetently supervised, have provided havens and hunting grounds for sexual criminals since their beginning. Hence the extraordinary wave of allegations about historic child abuse in institutions. Schaverien devotes an interesting chapter to sexual abuse, including at girls’ schools. But, for her, it is not the main issue. “Theo”, indeed, never experienced sexual abuse.

It grabs the headlines, but I suspect that for those who want to protect and succour healthy children, the shocking revelations about paedophiles in institutions may be a distraction. Again, while my correspondence contains many awful allegations, it’s also full of people apologising for not having a story of sexual predation to tell. “It was only bullying”, people write, “not what you’d call abuse”.

But emotional cruelty is what exacts the greatest toll on the developing mind. Children are resilient, they can recover from physical hurt: it’s clear from reading Schaverien that what most reliably damages children is long-term emotional neglect, the absence of safety, the failure of justice, the loss of love. We need the psychological abuse of children to be properly outlawed – a long-awaited “Cinderella Law” came into force last month, but it is weak – and we need to ask the rich and aspirational to think again before they put their children into care. They should read this book: it could save them a lot of money.

Climate change is triggering “extreme geological events”, like the Nepal earthquake

26 April 2015 for Newsweek: The untold – and terrifying – story behind the earthquake that devastated Nepal last Saturday morning begins with something that sounds quite benign. It’s the ebb and flow of rainwater in the great river deltas of India and Bangladesh, and the pindian-and-eurasian-platesressure that puts on the grinding plates that make up the surface of the planet.

Recently discovered, that causal factor is seen by a growing body of scientists as further proof that climate change can affect the underlying structure of the Earth.

Because of this understanding, a series of life-threatening “extreme geological events” – earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis – is predicted by a group of eminent geologists and geophysicists including University College London’s Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards.

Read the story in this week’s Newsweek magazine or here

Nathan Myhrvold – dinosaur-hunting, myth-busting physicist geek chef inventor tycoon (and lots of other things too)

3 Feb 2015: My piece for Intelligent Life – now FREE to read on moreintelligentlife.com.


Dr Nathan Myhrvold in his office with a prehistoric shark fossil and an ICBM nose cone

HEAD EAST FROM downtown Seattle, into the suburban technopolis that has grown up around Microsoft’s headquarters, and you will find the warehouses and towers of a company called Intellectual Ventures. A featureless block turns out to be the cave of a geek Aladdin. In the corridors are a second-world-war German cipher machine (part of the Enigma apparatus), a Japanese anti-aircraft gun and a whole host of shabby Bakelite and wooden machines that are the ancestors of the computer on your desk. The staff kitchen has a hybridised coffee machine, which remembers all the espressos it has ever made and can replicate them. At reception, a full-size T. rex roars out of the wall: it appeared in the film of “Jurassic Park”. In the boss’s corner office, when you’ve taken in the view of the snow-peaked Cascade mountains, you can gaze upon dinosaur toenails and an entire fossilised prehistoric crocodile. You may also spot a model of a Gulfstream V jet. The coffee table, part of a nuclear-reactor core, stands beside a hip-high cone tipped with dull metal and a shabby column of plastic and old circuit boards. This is the nose cone and command centre of a Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, the tactical nuclear device that saw the United States through the early cold war: technology that worked because it was never used. The hoard is more than a monument to its owner’s bubbling curiosity. It is also a statement from a self-styled “technological optimist”, a man who, at 55, has an unshaken belief that human ingenuity will sort everything out. Read the rest here

Food is too cheap

cheap-eats-cover10 Jan 2015: Thrifty or lavish, we all are now guests at the discounted, buy-one-get-one-free, year-round cheap food feast, eating more than we need and paying less for it – as a proportion of our incomes – than our grandparents did, or their parents before them. This, it turns out, is not entirely a good thing.

Cover story for Newsweek magazine – free to read here 


New stories – on drones, herring and a tech tycoon

December 2014 – versatile

Nathan Myhrvold My profile of the polymathic ex-Microsoft CTO – he’s also the top Tyrannosaurus Rex hunter and author/publisher of Modernist Cuisine, the world’s most expensive cookbook –  is in the January 2015 issue of Intelligent Life

Return of tdog barking at airborne dronehe Silver Darlings I went to the island of Bornholm to hunt down Denmark’s legendary cured herring recipes with Nordic sushi chef Silla Bjerrum – here’s the story in the Guardian

Droning on And for the Observer magazine my dog and I tried to take down 2015’s most invasive suburban annoyance – camera-carrying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Drones. They can fly in through your letter box. Here’s the story

A chance to make it illegal to ignore child abuse

5 October 2014: Here’s my story in the Observer on the political push for “mandatory reporting”, which could help whistleblowers who uncover abuse in institutions, and make it a crime to cover it up. This “crucial” measure for tidying up the malfunctioning child protection system could – with some political will – become part of the current Serious Crimes Bill.

But currently government ministers have decided to kick the proposal into the long grass, by postponing any legislation until after the Woolf inquiry into institutional child abuse reports. Fiona Woolf and her colleagues have not yet published terms of reference, let alone begun hearing evidence and opinion. The process is likely to take two years or more.

“It is extraordinary,” says abuse survivor Tom Perry, “that child abuse is a crime, yet reporting it is entirely discretionary.” His campaign group Mandate Now is a good source of information on how mandatory reporting has worked in other countries – providing an answer to those like the NSPCC who say the proposal would swamp social services and the police with complaints.

Of course, the key question that follows that complaint is: does Britain want a child protection system that provides full safeguards for children, vulnerable adults and for the people who work caring for them – or one that admits we haven’t the resources to prevent abuse in institutions?

Full story in the Observer here – it was published alongside this piece by the Lib Dems’ former Home Affairs spokesperson, Baroness Walmsley – Children have a right to belief, not cover-up