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June 21, 2006

If you have the choice, send your son to LRGS rather than Eton, argues Lincoln Allison: The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School - Nick Fraser

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School
by Nick Fraser
Pp. 228. London: Short Books, 2006
Hardback, 12.99


The first rugby captain I played under in Oxford was an Old Etonian: very nice chap, Welsh aristo from the back of beyond who went on to be something in the City. When I kindly pointed out to him that he was wearing odd socks his mumbled reply suggested that the particular combination of socks indicated his house at Eton.

But it was the delivery of the reply that mattered: the Hon X was embarrassed about his own superiority, the definitive Etonian mannerism. Cut forward a couple of years and I am dining with some toffs. (I say "dining", but don't get the wrong impression I was eating the dish I always ate in that particular restaurant, because you could get it nowhere else: lobster vindaloo.)

Pass one of them serviettes, would you?
I request and they all start giggling. It's not the aggressively short a that does the trick, nor the ungrammatical "them". The "freemasonry of class", as one of them puts it, is aroused because
We've never actually heard anyone say serviette before.

Etonians are different. If you went to boarding school, as I did, then you had a lot in common with public school chaps as a whole, when compared with "day bugs". There was games, beatings and a general air of subversion which included knowledge of boy-on-boy stuff as the popular press would now put it. But Etonians lived in a world apart: for all the "Harrow match" and the boating song, games were much less important to them and their school life seemed to revolve around elections and (secret?) societies whereas mine was just about toughness and hierarchy. And they had networks and contacts in the outside world which the average Old Rugbean (let alone Old Lancastrian) could barely comprehend.

There are two connected reasons for this. The first is that they are the best in status if nothing else and have something of that spirit which doesn't even acknowledge competition and is only concerned with internal rivalries. In this respect they are similar to the people on Capitol Hill or those around the Bishop of Rome, or the Ecole Nationale d'Administration or FC Real Madrid.

The second is that Eton was never founded or reformed as a modern, Victorian "public school" as virtually all the others were. Nick Fraser quotes Orwell (an OE, of course) on this (p. 167):

Eton partly escaped the reforms set on foot by Dr.Arnold and retained certain characteristics belonging to the eighteenth century and even to the Middle Ages. At any rate, whatever its future history, some of its traditions deserve to be remembered.
Nick Fraser's book on Eton is an exploratory essay. It doesn't have sections or chapters on "history", "curriculum", "sex" and "the future" as such, but all these themes are explored. There is a considerable autobiographical element as Fraser explores the part Eton has played in his own development and problems; the book is all the better for that. He has revisited and interviewed and read Etonians on Eton, including George Orwell, Maynard Keynes, Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell et al.

A slight edge is given to my task of reviewing the book by dates and unavoidable comparisons. Both Fraser and I left school in 1964. We both went on to get first class degrees at Oxford and to spend the rest of our lives wondering, to some degree, about how to squander our vast talents. Our schools were both founded under Henry VI. Eton (1440) apparently outranks Lancaster Royal Grammar School (1469), but the latter has a trick up its sleeve in claiming a continuity with educational institutions which go back much further than that. Both have complicated constitutions. In Eton's case this involves the monarch and the two ancient universities, whereas LRGS is a unique "voluntary aided" school which is also the third biggest boarding school in Lancashire, after Rossall and Stonyhurst. LRGS owes little or nothing to Eton, but a great deal to Rugby, not just in the general way that many aspiring schools do, but also because it had an Old Rugbean as headmaster from 1937 to 1961, which included my formative years.

Thank goodness, from this reviewer's point of view, Fraser is broadly sympathetic to the Etonian cause: a entire tome full of shocking revelations and anti-elitist ramblings, even from a publisher called "Short Books" would have been too much for me. He says, quoting a youthful article of his own (p. 139):

You can take two views about Eton. Either it is one of the best institutions in the country (if not the best) or else it's an ugly wart on our egalitarian society.
He isn't much tempted by the latter view. And nor am I, regarding the achievement of greater equality among human beings in most circumstances as not merely unattainable, but also undesirable and in some fundamental way inconceivable.

But despite this general sympathy Fraser puts a pretty strong case that, if you had the choice, you should send your son to LRGS rather than Eton. (Both remain single-sex institutions, incidentally, with no serious proposals to change that condition.) The first reason not to go to Eton is that it turns your hormone-charged adolescence into something which is so glamorous that nothing is ever quite as good. Fraser approvingly summarises Cyril Connolly (pp. 135-6):
Eton is both the magic place and the angel with the sword standing outside. It is where one goes to be ejected from the prospect of happiness. Nothing will ever be so good again.
The second is that it creates horrendously, unattainably high expectations. You mustn't just be a cabinet minister, but Prime Minister and in that role succeed in major historical projects. Not just a millionaire, but a multi-millionaire and do something with your money. University (specifically, Oxford) becomes, in Curzon's words, just (p. 150):
. . . . . that brief interval which must intervene between Eton and the cabinet.
I dined recently among Old Lancastrians: solicitors, businessmen, an ambassador; a touch of glamour added by rugby players and a singer-songwriter who had a number one hit. On the whole, a bunch of blokes to whom life had been kinder than they expected. Those of my generation had achieved more, accumulated more money, visited more places, than we thought we were going to. There was a smug, provincial satisfaction about us which Old Etonians, on Fraser's account, could never comprehend. Nor could they comprehend how we would regard them as precious, exotic, un-English creatures. (We are keen on our version of Englishness, with our toasting of the "Duke of Lancaster".) The very existence of Fraser's book is a case in point; there would be no need for us to write books to define our relationship to the old school.

That is all their problem, not mine or ours. But I think there is something they ought to be indicted for. It is not for being a political elite, by having provided half a cabinet on occasions and much else beside in the way of high office. Let that be envied by those who wanted the job, not by the vast majority of us who didn't. It is not for being a bad elite: compared with the Junkers and the Enarques and with pretty well anyone else they were OK. They were "Nature's wets", on which Fraser quotes Jonathan Aitken (p. 156):

The little people mustn't be thrown out into the streets. One can always find the odd tied cottage behind the stables for their old age. That's the Eton mentality applied to politics . . .
It is for their maudlin arrogance: as their class and its global aspirations have inevitably declined they have equated that decline with the decline of England so that permeating down from them is a perception of decay which is applied to the rest of us despite being in flat contradiction to our own experiences. It is a perception which implies that, at best, a holding operation is possible. It is also a perception which has led the worst of them to try to attach themselves to what they regard as the new winners, whether in Moscow, Brussels or Washington.

Incidentally, I still say "serviette".

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001).

To read Richard D. North's and David Womersley's take on The Importance of Being Eton see: Richard D. North asks, why has Eton produced more environmentalists than any other institution? The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School - Nick Fraser
and "There is something almost sublime about Fraser's capacity for self-contradiction": The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School - Nick Fraser.


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