James Rhodes and Arnold House School: A question of journalistic ethics

Since the rest of the journalistic world has not said a balanced word on this, I thought I would before I set off for Pamplona and my annual “running of the bulls” (henceforth you’ll find me over at The Pamplona Post.)

Xander

Arnold House School Photo 1982

Arnold House School Photo 1982 – as blurred as the author’of this post’s memories of the time

James Rhodes and Arnold House School

‘Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” said Marcel Proust in 1913. “Many people believe that memory works like a recording device, but decades of research has shown that’s not the case. Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It’s more like a Wikipedia page — you can go change it, but so can other people,” said Professor Elizabeth Loftus of UCI in 2013, with notably less elegance but quite a lot more research.

These statements ring particularly true to me since one of my earliest memories is of having another, even older, memory proved false by my brother Jules. The memory he challenged was that I had been able to fly but had subsequently lost the ability. He managed to convince me that what I had actually done was miscategorise the memory of a dream of flying as a memory of the reality of doing it. The very verb itself, ‘to re-member’, to put back together, is the strongest clue of all to its fallibility.

We live, at this moment in time, in the midst of a deluge of dark memories erupting on to the pages of our newspapers, with accusations of sexual abuse coming thick and fast against public figures, and inevitably, some of them are true and some of them are false, and the ratio of true to false is perhaps the greatest battle ground of all.

This, of course, is a cyclical thing. The last time the wheel turned to this point, the scandal was concerning ‘repressed’ memories, a witch-hunt which surpassed Salem with claims of satanic abuse circles in the 1980s. I was a philosophy of science postgraduate when that one finally died the death and remember studying that piece of pseudoscience being brilliantly taken apart by Professor Richard McNally of Harvard in his seminal 2003 book Remembering Trauma. As he pointed out, how many Auschwitz survivors forgot about the Holocaust, even when it wasn’t being discussed (as it wasn’t, for some time after)? And with that rather obvious realisation the whole structural underpinning of things like Dissociative Identity Disorder (commonly called Multiple Personality Disorder) comes into question.

My own childhood was thankfully free from such darknesses, or so my memory had me believe. Until, that is, I came across an article in The Times in May with the headline ‘James Rhodes thanks Cumberbatch and Fry for support over abuse memoir’. Something stirred in my recollective recesses at that, and so I read on.

Apparently Rhodes, something of a Nigel Kennedy-figure in the world of classical piano, had just won a court case against his ex-wife, and was as a result free to publish his memoirs containing detailed memories of his serious sexual abuse as a child. There was something terribly familiar about the name, although I didn’t know him as a pianist.

Then I read that the “memoirs detail how Peter Lee, his boxing coach at Arnold House preparatory school in north London, began raping him when he was six.”

And it suddenly came to me: I knew James Rhodes because I was at Arnold House school with him in those boxing classes with Peter Lee. The of us are in the photo above taken in the summer of 1982 when I was almost six and he had just turned seven. In the detail below you can see us both, while standing in line above me is my brother Jules and somewhere in the photo is Rhodes’s own older brother Matthew.

Detail of 1982 photo - author bottom left

Detail of 1982 photo – author of this post bottom left

I first met Peter Lee at about that time and trained with him consistently for years, as the medals in the other photo attest, and my memories of him are jarringly different to those of Rhodes. My brother Jules was one of his pupils, but he is now sadly dead so I could not ask him, but our oldest brother Byron had been one of Lee’s star boxers in the 1970s. So I asked him what he thought about these ‘revelations’, and his reply was frankly, unprintable. Let’s just say that his memories of “Mr Lee” are more like mine. As are our parents, who employed the man on an out of school basis for a decade and a half.

However, as I’ve noted, memory is a false friend and the darkness and inscrutability of the human soul is something of which I am all too aware. Is it possible he was a predatory paedophile, I asked myself, and the answer came back: yes, humans are animal, and in some the bestial comes out only intermittently, only when the environment allows it. So then I asked myself about that environment: how, logistically, could this have happened?

By which I mean, how could someone rape a six year old child and get away with it? After all, Arnold House was and is a preparatory day school, not a care home, nor some great sprawling country boarding school where boys seldom see their parents and there are plenty of dark corners for dark things to occur in. Arnold House is made up of three small buildings on just over half acre of north-west London, containing fourteen classrooms in constant use, a gym, a dining room and a small, tarmac playground. In that tiny space dwell two hundred pupils under the scrutiny of twenty teachers, not including catering, cleaning, maintenance and secretarial staff. It was a hothouse, in both the disciplinary and academic senses, being a feeder school for Westminster.

I can best illustrate how ‘clean’ that atmosphere was with an anecdote: I was a rebel as a child, constantly in trouble, but when I arrived at Eton aged thirteen, I had never smoked a cigarette. So when, in my first week, a friend from the 70-acre boarding school Summer Fields took me for my first cigarette somewhere in Eton’s 400 acre grounds, I was taken aback at the sheer quantity of ungoverned space available for misbehaviour. (I went on to hold the record for misbehaviour at that school.)

What was more, this was, as mentioned, a day school, and the Rhodes family lived on the same street as the school, about 50 doors, or 500 yards, further down. He was dropped at the school in the morning, and collected in the afternoon by his mother. To put it bluntly, brutally even, how did no one notice the injuries caused by an adult male raping a three foot tall, forty pound child? Was he allowed to bathe entirely autonomously aged six? I am not denying it happened, certainly not – I was there and I don’t know – but how did it happen?

I then turned to what I knew of Peter Lee: he was the first male teacher we ever had, the junior school having an exclusively female staff, and was also most memorable for his sense of humour and his Cockney accent, both of which were unique in those surroundings. Despite having the natural physical authority of a man who had boxed all his life and had fought in the Second World War, sometimes his joking style would lead to overexcitement among us very young children, and he would restore order by swishing about a long bamboo cane. (Caning was not banned in the state school sector until 1987, in private schools in 1999.)

Informal corporal punishment aside, he was greatly liked by the boys, as was boxing, which we originally could do all the way through the school, from ages 5 to 13. However, after one particularly hard match between myself and another boy when we were both ten, the doctor on the board of governors – who was also my family doctor – managed to get it banned for those aged eleven and above by arguing that at that age punches became hard enough to cause injury to the brain (we boxed with gloves, but without head gear.)

That governor, by the way, was no ordinary GP, but Sir Nigel Southward, the Queen’s private doctor. I am not saying this to drop names, but it is worth bearing in mind what sort of people Peter Lee was meant to be taking these kinds of risks under the nose of.

It is also worth considering what sort of people he was risking the wrath of with these alleged activities. I have in front in my files a copy of a Time magazine article from 1969 headlined ‘Shipping: The Other Greeks’, which profiles the great magnates in that industry who were avoiding the limelight that the likes of Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos so famously sought out. On the first page it lists these names: “Lemos, Kulukundis, Pateras, Carras, Papalios”. Every single one had relatives at Arnold House during the time my brothers and I were there. Next to Rhodes in the school photo is a Hadji-Pateras. Two along from me in the 1st XV photo is the oldest son of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a man who has honeymooned at the White House. Who would want to make mortal enemies – and I suspect it really would be mortal – of men like that?

The author is far right

The author of this post is far right

This world was such a protected idyll that when teachers asked the boys to write for the school magazine what made them happy and sad, boys wrote things like: “Happiness is rolling in the mud.” “Sadness is when I have to have a filling.” As you can see in the photo below, the boy who wrote that was James Rhodes, aged seven.

Arnold House School magazine, Summer 1982

Arnold House School magazine, Summer 1982

Despite this, The Times article went on to state that the then head of the Junior School had read an interview in the Sunday Times with Rhodes in 2010 where he mentioned sexual abuse, and she had provided a corroborative statement to the police, which had led to the arrest and charging of Mr Lee.

First, I looked up the interview, and read Rhodes saying to Bryan Appleyard he had suffered “serious abuse – a gym teacher, it’s always gym teachers – to the extent that I had to have a back operation at 13 because he’d shattered my spine.” Which struck me as odd, since Rhodes had left Arnold House aged ten, but it was an apparently off the cuff remark with no further detail.

So I contacted the head of our Junior School, and what she told me gave me pause.

In summary, she recounted how Rhodes had become scared of going to be taught by Lee, so she had started accompanying him to the class as a result. Lee had asked him to stay behind afterwards to help clear up the gym, and when he returned to her class on two occasions he was injured and seriously upset – once he had blood on his face, once on his legs – and she had confronted Lee who had given “excuses” about accidents.

She had thought at the time it might be “physical nastiness”, but after reading the interview more than three decades later, she had contacted Rhodes who had “confirmed” it was sexual abuse. They police became involved at this stage. Apparently Lee had had a “tenuous link” to a paedophile ring in the South East, and when confronted by the police he denied ever having worked at Arnold House and so the police had charged him with ten counts of buggery. By that stage he was a widower living on his own in his nineties. He suffered a stroke before the trial, was declared unfit to stand, and died soon afterwards.

At this point, it seemed that my memories of Lee, and of Arnold House, were in contradiction to some quite serious evidence – these two sets of stories were not ‘compossible’ as they say in philosophy – and I began to view Rhodes’s claims as reported as more than just ‘possible’ in the strict sense of the word.

However, I still had doubts and wrote back to the teacher, saying I found it very hard to believe that a six year old could have been raped and returned to her class without her noticing. In fact, I find it very hard to believe that she would allow a six year old to come to her bleeding and not trace the source of the injury. This was a man who used fists and a bamboo cane as part of his teaching – injury to leg and face is explicable by either – and, to be crude, anal rape leaves very different injuries.

As for his deceit, both to her and the police, that is tougher. It is worth pointing out, though, that the man was an ex-naval seaman from old Margate – “it wasn’t me and I wasn’t there, guv” are not unexpected responses. As for tenuous links to paedophile rings, there can’t be someone who works with the young who doesn’t have one. As I said to the corroborating teacher, she herself certainly has one from Arnold House now, even if she doesn’t from her subsequent job as Minister of the Church of England and prison chaplain.

What I did not ask, on pain of rudeness, was how one could use the word “confirmed” about a chat. If I have a chat with someone about events which occurred thirty years ago, to which I was an adult eye-witness and they were a child, and they made me doubt my original interpretation of those events, the last word I would start throwing about would be “confirmed”. There can be no denying that any witness statement in part created by consultation with the accuser is tainted evidence at best.

The teacher’s response to the arguments I did make was indirect: “Gosh Xander, this has really upset you hasn’t it. I absolutely see what you are saying…As far as I can remember, no other child was injured in this way from the Junior School… I will never know what happened… I’m glad that you have good memories of him so I’m sorry in a way that you have read [about this].”

And it had upset me, I must admit, but what really upset me was a point of principle and an important one: my fellow journalists were now using phrases like “the rapist Peter Lee” about a man who had never stood trial. Now the most obvious reason for this is the simplest and cheapest: sensationalism sells, and the insertion of the word “alleged” reduces sensation. Since it is not against British law to defame the dead, there is a driving force for journalists to ignore the other legal fact that those who have no conviction are to be presumed innocent.

Furthermore, to write “alleged” can appear as though one is doubting the word of a victim – of course one isn’t, one is merely offering the known facts so readers can assess if they are a victim – and that is deeply unpopular in the current environment where speakers are banned from universities for even suggesting anyone might ever have a false interpretation of a remembered event, a false memory, or simply be making something up.

Hoping there was some higher motive for these writers’ apparent breach of Orwell’s dictum that “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations”, I went through the Supreme Court judgement which made this such a cause célèbre in the first place. What I found was a great deal of verbiage like the following:

“77. Freedom to report the truth is a basic right to which the law gives a very high level of protection. (See, for example, Napier v Pressdram Ltd [2009] EWCA Civ 443, [2010] 1 WLR 934, para 42.) It is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which speech which is not deceptive, threatening or possibly abusive, could give rise to liability in tort for wilful infringement of another’s right to personal safety. The right to report the truth is justification in itself.”

Which is, frankly, irresponsible, given that at no point do they consider the truth or falsity of the claims in the book – no evidence, no witnesses, nothing. What I am not saying is that the statements in the book are false. Far from it, what I am saying is that the Supreme Court has – by logical implication if not legal – implied, by asserting that the right to publish true things justifies the right to publish the things in the book, that the things in the book are true. The absence of a single caveat pre-empting this misinterpretation of legalese by journalists was injudicious to the say the least.

Finally, I bought the book itself. A number of reviewers have used the word “raw” to describe it and that suits it well: pages and pages of raw, of damage exposed to public view. It is prose as wound, and as a result it cannot be criticised for messiness or self-indulgence: it is unjust to upbraid the injured for their language.

However, whilst this book does sterling work in exhibiting pain and anguish to its readers, it is, like everything else in this case, completely lacking in the sort of details that inform. And I don’t mean sordid and salacious ones – it has them in abundance – but the ones which tell you how it happened and, furthermore, might allow you to prevent it from happening to your own child. Isn’t that in part the purpose of such revelations? Rhodes even claims that by aged ten he could “recognise ‘that’ look” which paedophiles have, but doesn’t give the slightest clue to help anyone else to follow suit.

Far from giving details about how it might happen somewhere like Arnold House, he doesn’t even name the school – it is mentioned only in the corroborating teacher’s police statement as reprinted – just as he doesn’t name the “provincial fuck-bucket of a school in the country” he went on to attend. That, by the way, was Twyford, the oldest preparatory school in England, whose alumni include Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Hubert Parry, the composer of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ and the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. Apparently there the abuse got materially worse and he found himself suffering “regular beatings, blowing older boys (and staff) for Mars bars (I was more innocent back then – money meant nothing, sugar everything), torturing animas,” and so on and so forth.

Readers will be unsurprised to discover that by 2006, he had had a break down so severe he had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Apparently he is recovered now but does say this: “One of my diagnoses was dissociative identity disorder [he earlier calls this “the shinier name for multiple personality disorder”] where I have a number (thirteen if you’re curious) of ‘alters’ who, depending on the situation, take turns to run the show.” Cf. my earlier statements about this disorder.

So, what conclusions have I drawn? Well, mainly that people shouldn’t be so quick to draw conclusions. And, as a corollary to that, journalists should get used to using the word “alleged” even when talking about the dead because anything else is, frankly, offensive, both to the dead, to their profession and to their readership.

If as a result, genuine victims end up being disbelieved – or, as I would advocate, people simply suspend judgement – then that is harsh but necessary collateral damage in a just war to prevent injury to the innocent, the very principle on which British justice is founded. About these particular events, though, and unlike my colleagues who have taken a different line, I can say with certainty that I simply do not know, and I, unlike they, was actually there.

Post Script: I subsequently contacted the person next to Rhodes in the photo, whom I remember as always being with him at school. His reply began thus: “Hi Xander, I knew James and Mr Lee and never suspected anything was wrong. I did boxing with him and spent lots of times alone with Lee and he acted normally. I remember James being quiet and shy but that’s nothing strange.” He then went on to unquestioningly believe the claims in the book until I raised the issues in this piece. Our discussion ended inconclusively on either side. As it should.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Fiske-Harrison is an author and journalist who has written for The Independent, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, The TLS, The Spectator, GQ and Prospect magazines and appeared on the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, Discovery Channel, US National Public Radio, Radio Talk Europe and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation National Radio (among others.)

His own travel memoir, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011.

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Comments

  1. Great article Xander.

  2. James Williams says:

    Hi Xande. I too was at AH with you and if it’s any consolation I have no memory of this chap Rhodes. I remember a boxing teacher with a dented head but happily avoided indulging in the pugilistic art! Hope you are well. James Williams

  3. Wow, I’m in that photo with you… Memories come flooding back, the teachers in the picture… I recognise Johnny Clegg, Mr Leger, Mrs Burman, Mrs Dyak (?), Miss Adams… I remember the horseshoe shaped indentation in Mr Lee’s head and the boxing bouts, but (thankfully) nothing sinister…
    A very well-written and thought-provoking article.

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