It was just a very good school, and I’m a normal person really.
In a bar in my first term at Oxford, I was surprised when a second-year made a comment about the fact that I had been to Eton. I asked how she knew, and she said it was her job to know these things, because she was involved in a charity involved in improving the diversity of backgrounds of Oxford students. I realised that she had seen my name on a list somewhere and must have made a mental note of me as “the enemy”. Scrabbling for common ground, and aware that she is a lesbian, I suggested to her that admitting I went to Eton was like coming out: it’s a part of myself that I’m perfectly happy with, but when other people know, they will put a label on me, make assumptions about my life, and sometimes show signs of prejudice. “You’re wrong,” she growled into her pint. “It’s nothing like coming out.”
I never dared to use the comparison again. But the exchange reminded me of one thing: Eton was a strange place to grow up. We were constantly in the media, we were an international terrorist target, and I’m pretty sure we were the first institution in the world to be shut by swine flu. But it did all the things that every school should try to do: individuality was cherished, debate was encouraged, and aspirations were nurtured. For newly-emerged Old Etonians, though, experiencing the real world is often disconcerting.
Conversations about schools, social groupings, money and politics are a minefield. Already by this point, at least half of you are sneering at me for actually daring to whinge about having gone to Eton. I know this because it’s an automatic response, even among most of my closest friends, when I say something more considered than “Yeah, it was great, and I had a great education.” For some reason, I’m not allowed to point out the peculiar nuances of my situation, even though I’ll freely acknowledge that the downsides are massively outweighed by the positives. On the other hand, if I do say something about how good it was, everyone sneers at me for boasting about where I went to school. It’s generally better not to say anything about school at all. But many people don’t give me that option.
I try not to let strangers find out that I’m an Old Etonian until they have got to know me. A lot of students are fascinated by my school experiences – far more people, in fact, than I expected. And their opinions, whether coloured by awe or disgust, all seem to outstrip their actual knowledge of the subject. I’ve had people tell me that I’m wrong, that a top hat is definitely still part of the school uniform. (For the last time – it’s not.) People refuse to believe that fagging ended years and years ago. (It definitely did.) I’ve been confidently informed of Eton’s institutionalised buggery so many times that I’ve found myself wondering whether it really was going on all around me, and I was just naively oblivious, the only boy in the school who was left out of the loop. By this stage, a number of you will be assuming that I have an overinflated sense of my own self-importance, and therefore that I’m convinced that people are constantly interested in me when in reality they couldn’t care less. See? You’ve all made a judgement about my character, based primarily on where I went to school.
All this was to be expected, to a degree. We were warned about it. It’s just that it seems incongruous when it happens at Oxford. People sit in the ancient dining halls in their gowns, half-listening to the Latin grace as the waiters hurry to fetch them their soup, and laugh about how I attended a posh school. Eton is a smart, modernised institution that has taken the best of the old and the new, treats every pupil as an individual worthy of attention and care, and which knows how to run its operations very smoothly – all praise that, in my experience, I could never give to Oxford. I find anti-Eton rhetoric inexplicable when it comes from my fellow Oxford students. I’m all for equality, fairness, social mobility – I like to think that these are the reasons that I help as much as I can at Access and Outreach events, rather than because of a lingering sense of guilt instilled in me by the media and the student body.
I think that these aims are compatible with going to venerable, academically exclusive educational establishments. On the other hand, I think that declaring war on the privileged cabal running the country and determining to topple the elites through grassroots activism just sounds absurd when coming from someone who’s bought into the system enough to come to this university. Also, mocking the choices that were made for me when I was eleven years old isn’t, in the grand scheme of things, going to achieve the social revolution that these people say that they want.
So I can brush off all the class-warfare stuff – my standard line is that my dad was a self-made entrepreneur from Bedford, and I was one of hundreds of pupils to receive substantial financial support from Eton. The most taxing conversations are with my friends. Plenty of them don’t give a damn about my school, of course. But it does get disconcerting when friends (often after a few drinks) confess things like: “When we first met, I assumed you were a twat because you went to Eton.” Then there’s the occasional conversation when somebody tells me that they hate public schools, but they generously accept that not every single person who goes there is a dickhead, and so they forgive me for my background, sounding like some Christ-like figure washing away my sins and letting me rise purified and redeemed. Thanks. Thanks for that.
Funnily enough, I don’t actually believe that I spent five years of my life surrounded by terrible people. Yes, the levels of arrogance in the place were suffocating, but that’s to be expected when every day you let a pack of photographers trail us around, taking photos of us to illustrate media stories about how one day we’ll be the most important people in Britain. But most pupils were interested, talented and fun – I have no reason to think that the actual proportion of arseholes was any greater than elsewhere. Then again, it still feels bizarre when Oxford friends proudly tell me: “I stuck up for Eton in an argument. I said that I know you, and you’re a nice guy, so there’s nothing wrong with Etonians.” So have I got this right: this one school remains so much in the public eye that they’re still talking about it, and inferring what it’s like based on the character of the one person they know who went there?
If so: it’s really time to talk about something new.