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June 21, 2006

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

Posted by Richard D. North

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

Nick Fraser's book looks at first sight to be an account of Britain's most famous or infamous school. It seems likely to tell us the importance to itself of being Eton. But this is actually a rather more interesting thing: a memoir. Just as the cook Nigel Slater shows how food formed him (and Philip Norman showed us that it was seaside entertainment in his case), Fraser diagnoses the effect of Eton on him. We're bound to be interested: Eton does seem to consume people whilst giving them awesome self-confidence.

With classic Etonian trick-modesty, Nick Fraser may well be writing about the school's history as a disguise for self-absorption. Any memoir can be like that. An autobiography can list personal triumphs and failures: a memoir must be about some bit of the world which exists beyond the writer but matters to him. It's the difference between: "My part in Hitler's downfall", and "Hitler's part in mine".

Fraser saves till midway an account of being bum-slapped by a weepy Chenevix-Trench, the headmaster who seems to have been quite a successful moderniser. Fraser says, a little surprisingly:

I was damaged more than I could ever have brought myself to express.
We need to know more, surely? "Chummy" was presumably well-known by then for his weirdness, and weren't Etonians anyway pretty well inured to the perviness of their teachers? Besides, by then we already know that Fraser was playing fast and loose with the affections of his English teacher as well as visiting whores in London and Paris. He knew how odd, and oddly compelling, sex is.

Rightly, since this is an account of the Eton aftermath, Fraser leaves the school two thirds through the book. Indeed, this work in a way carries on from the efforts of his school-days. During his time there, Fraser was editor of Eton's own chronicle, which was always an exercise in agonised navel-gazing. Even more so were the unpublished editors' notes, which - like cabinet minutes - are preserved for later plunderers. His account is all the more sharp, granted that his contemporary co-editor - to whom we are introduced - dies of alcoholism before our very eyes.

Eton Exceptionalism dogs everyone who ever went there.

Eton has never wholly let go of me,
John Le Carré/David Cornwell tells Fraser, and that peculiarly chippy writer only taught at the school. Even Craig Brown, writing about the book in the Mail On Sunday, and insisting that there's nothing which defines Old Etonians, goes on to accept the same EO confidence identified by Fraser.

For many, and liking it or not, Eton seems to have had the power to make its old boys feel that they never met anyone as interesting, or had so interesting a time, as they did whilst there. Curzon - foreign secretary and Viceroy of India - described election to the school's most prized society, Pop, as

the best day of my life.
It seems that others agreed. Life after Eton seemed second-rate, even to first-raters. Fraser gives one the feeling that Old Etonians assess their own worth and that of their fellows as being frozen during their schooldays: it can't be improved on or rubbed out. Their work in the world, or the world's subsequent evaluation, is of no account.

Eton seems positively addictive. Anthony Eden, it is recalled, didn't enjoy his time there, but - like plenty of other non-enthusiasts - went on to send his own sons for more of the same. James Goldsmith followed the pattern: he famously destroyed his own gift to his house master in front of the man, but we have an Etonian legacy in his son Zac.

Fraser doesn't tell us, but it's true, that Eton has produced more environmentalists than any other institution. Jonathon Porritt and Peter Melchett - and Zac, of course - are the obvious examples. But there is the erstwhile Tory green minister, William Waldegrave, too. President of Pop and a Fellow of All Souls, and later a Cabinet Minister, Waldegrave's present political obscurity - deliberate or not - is one of life's oddities. He was on my journalistic beat for a while, and I admired him more than was wise. I feared to like him too much though, and have often wondered whether his friendly coolness was Etonian. Pace Craig Brown, it may have been an aristocratic coolness, or intellectual, or personal, or public school (in general), or non-existent.

I am not alone in having sometimes wondered whether being a Green and being an Etonian is a perfect blend of bossiness and expiation. George Orwell's becoming a socialist and a plongeur looks like an Etonian response suitable to its day and now planetary concern has a similar de haut en bas commanding abasement.

Fraser takes us to an OE schooldays friend of his who now runs a comprehensive school very near his almer mater, which he (the toff state headmaster) never visits. This looks like an act of atonement gone mad: Eton is anxiously reaching out to the state sector, and would presumably be only too willing to hook up with such a teacher at such a school.

Still, lots of public schoolboys disapprove of the education they received. The existential bind of being Eton is that the place wins, win or lose. If you conform, that's great and if you rebel - well, that's still the school at work, isn't it? Indeed, Eton's USP is that it rather avoids moulding the young. Fraser quotes a memoir of Eton in the 1930s by General Sir David Fraser:

We were not greatly pressed upon or stifled by the team spirit, the need to conform.
The general says that there was not a "particular article" which the school sought to produce. And that's probably how it leaves its most obvious mark.

It also marks out the difference between Eton and St Elsewhere. My own minor public school was endlessly and comically banging on about loyalty to house and school, mostly because most of us felt neither. Having none, it kept on inventing traditions. Allergic to influences of any kind, I am glad that my own school was not impressive. But of course, I went too far and delayed going to Cambridge until it could do me neither harm nor good. But at least I was free to hate my school's attempts to mould me. I didn't, as it happened, but I fear the school taught me a corrosive disdain of such efforts.

It might reassure Fraser to know that even my place could produce "tarts". This is Eton's word for people who use homosexuality - temporary or permanent, practised or intimated - as a bargaining chip. He doesn't tell us what was the ratio of buggery to mutual masturbation amongst the boys in his day at Eton, and only stresses the former. At my place, the latter was much more common, and not very. We had our fair share of pederastic masters, and they were amongst the most effective teachers. The greatest harm they did was in teaching some of us how to deploy charm, but not how to be wary of depending on it.

Fraser is good - just emphatic and suggestive enough - on his own tartiness. He seems to have played his English master like a trout. We learn that later, in New York, Fraser has therapy and we get the general impression that he senses himself to have been damaged by the school and its quirks and queers. I am reluctant to assume that's quite fair, though it certainly fits the hysterically populist and anti-paedophile mood of the day.

Still, this book, which offers some really lovely understated writing, mostly avoids being censorious. It's littered with elementary typo's, but isn't excitable and doesn't hate snobbery, the class system, or elitism. It doesn't even hate Eton. It seems mostly rather fair, and aims for generosity. It sets a cracking pace and doesn't outstay its welcome. I never did like the idea of Eton much - never really warmed to it - and this book won't convert anyone to the school. Unless condemned by birth and tradition to want to, or by ambition, I can't see why anyone would bother to lumber his son with such baggage.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

To read David Womersley's and Lincoln Allison's take on The Importance of Being Eton see: "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 and 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.

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