Children are “little nippers,” while they address their chums as “old sausage.” If a woman of any age enters the room, they leap to their feet, and if you have them over to watch a football match on the telly you will receive a thank-you note within two days. They are likely to sleep in unheated rooms with the windows open even in winter, and when you phone them in the hospital after an emergency appendectomy, they say “It was a bit of a bore, but nothing to make a fuss about.” You feel that they ought to be out there running the empire, that they’d do a splendid job of it, except there is no longer an empire for them to run.
Known derisively as toffs, they went to Eton, Harrow, Gordonstoun, Winchester — institutions called, without a trace of irony, public schools, though they could hardly be more private. Before that, they were sent to prep school, shipped off as boarders at the age of seven or eight. A graduate of Radley, another public school, argues in a recent memoir that what their education chiefly taught them, apart from Latin and impeccable manners, was to repress their emotions — any eight-year-old boy caught crying because he missed his mummy (or maybe his nanny) would be ruthlessly mocked — and to pretend they take nothing seriously: earnestness is the cardinal sin. The more usual criticisms of them are that they associate exclusively with people who went to the same sort of schools and know nothing about the lives of ordinary people. They’re a frequent butt of satire nowadays, presented as figures of ridicule on television sit-coms. Yet the fact remains that both male Prime Ministers of Great Britain in the 21st century have been Old Etonians, voted into power by ordinary people whose lives they know nothing about. Can the idea that such men were born to lead be so embedded in the national psyche that it cannot be expunged by a century of outcry against them?
As early as 1906, George Bernard Shaw was proposing that all the public schools in Britain be razed to the ground and their foundations sown with salt. In the midst of World War II, George Orwell, himself the product of Eton as well as a prep school whose snobbishness and horrors he detailed in one of his most famous essays — though he went to both on scholarship — was calling for their dissolution:“It is all too obvious that our talk of ‘defending democracy’ is nonsense while it is a mere accident of birth that decides whether a gifted child shall or shall not get the education it deserves.” Yet even now, the 7% of the populace that attend these schools, and who go on to Oxford or Cambridge at a rate ten times that of the products of state schools, comprise 74% of senior judges, 71% of senior officers of the armed forces, 50% of Cabinet ministers and members of the House of Lords, 44% of captains of industry, 33% of Members of Parliament.
These figures are deployed, with minor variations, in the many recent books lambasting the public school system: Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes, and the Schooling of an Upper Class (2017); Posh Boys (2019);Gilded Youth (2019); Engines of Privilege (2019); finally the Radley memoir cited above: Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England (2021). Given the connections made at such places, the additional connections made at Oxford or Cambridge, coupled with the sense of entitlement, the ambition and competitiveness, nurtured at those places, it’s hardly surprising that every major institution, every bastion of power, in the country should be heaving with public school boys.
What is surprising, to an outsider at least, is just how grim those places are, or were until lately. That the British upper classes, and their aspirational upper- middle-class cohorts, should choose to send their sons, at enormous cost, to places where they will be beaten, starved, frozen, and perhaps sexually molested by a pedophile, is a continuing source of perplexity to anyone who hails from elsewhere. Nor did those practices cease, as might be imagined, in the late nineteenth century.
True, in 1999, beatings with a cane were finally outlawed in the major public schools, and following a series of highly publicized trials and convictions of more than a dozen prep school and public school masters for sexual offenses, it seems likely that members of staff with pedophile tendencies have now been either weeded out or told in no uncertain terms to curb their enthusiasm. Perhaps, this being a new century, the bath water at Eton is now hot, or at least lukewarm, rather than stone cold. (The Radley memoirist writes of baths that were not only freezing, but lacked a bath plug, so that the boys had to keep the water from flowing out by sticking their toes into the drain.) Perhaps the food has improved in both quality and quantity. But if you question anyone who went to a top prep school and a top public school as late as the 1980s or 90s, you will hear the same stories, told not indignantly but as though they’re merry jokes: they were never warm, they were beaten for relatively minor offenses, they were perpetually hungry.
In speaking of pedophile masters — and they all have tales of such masters — they will tell you off-handedly that some pupils were so hungry they’d do anything, presumably including being sodomized, for a Mars bar. Sausages for dinner were considered a huge treat, and the great hope was that the sausages would not be too badly burnt. (The former Prime Minister David Cameron writes in his memoir of a prep school meal consisting of rice, curry, and maggots.) It’s no wonder that Evelyn Waugh and others have claimed that anyone who went to a really good public school would have no difficulty adjusting to prison.
There are those — by no means all ex-public school boys themselves — who argue that even if these young men will never have to rough it in remote outposts of the empire, or endure the monsoon season in thatched huts on tea plantations; even if they will never have to fight in their country’s wars, as their predecessors did for generations (public school boys died at a rate more than one and a half times that of other men in World War I — 1,157 from Eton alone), there is still a case to be made for the toughening process that their schooling provided. After all, they say, life itself is a battle; to be taught at a young age to accept hardship uncomplainingly, to be self-reliant, is an invaluable lesson. And of course, in a courtroom or boardroom, knowing how to keep one’s emotions hidden, or even to block them entirely, can be enormously useful.
But I am more interested in the ones who aren’t judges or CEO’s or Cabinet ministers — who aren’t, in fact, much of anything in particular. Some of the ones I’m acquainted with have just enough inherited money to live without working, though not enough to buy a house or support a family or take extravagant trips. One has a famous surname; one has a grand-sounding title. But they live in retreat from the world, in rented cottages where they spend their days reading Suetonius or developing photographs of hedgerows and meadows, which they occasionally sell to magazines. Somehow, the spirit of competitiveness that was supposed to be fostered on the playing fields of Eton failed to blossom in them; maybe they were too reflective by nature, or possibly too sure of their credentials when young to develop the requisite ambition.
They, too, were trained never to complain, never to feel sorry for themselves, never to make a show of their feelings. Only, lacking some innate toughness, they seem more trapped than fortified by that ethos. Aware that the culture has changed, that emotional transparency, confessions of vulnerability, are more prized nowadays than the stiff upper lip, they are nevertheless unable to adapt comfortably to the new rules. They will allude to their emotions obliquely, they may even use the therapeutic phrases that have become part of common parlance, but lightly, humorously; on those occasions when an emotion is too strong to be treated ironically, their voices become choked, strangled, their hands tremble as they force the unfamiliar words out.
Their plight is not one many people are prepared to sympathize with — jokes about upper-class twits meet with more favor — but I can’t help finding it poignant. They remind me of émigrés I’ve known, trying to fit into a culture very different from the one they were raised in. Displaced persons, even, because of course they have been displaced: they were brought up to play a role in the world (the gracious lord of the manor, or the universe) that the world no longer wants or needs them to play.
Snobbishness being the province of the socially insecure, they display little of it towards what their grandparents would have called the lower orders. One of them, ordered to take a course on the perils of drunk driving after being stopped by the police for motoring under the influence, was enthusiastic about the “splendid chaps” he met in the course – a fisherman, a bricklayer, a gardener; after class, he told me, they all went off to the pub together and had a pint or two.
Still, even for impoverished toffs, there are a few special privileges left. Though nothing about them suggests abnormal blood lust, they routinely take part in grouse shoots, pheasant shoots, partridge shoots at the stately homes to which they are invited by virtue of their birth. Hundreds of birds reared for the sole purpose of being slaughtered are beaten out of the bushes by the gamekeeper’s hirelings and fly upwards, to be shot out of the sky; the number killed (the “bag”) is entered proudly into the estate’s records, while the “guns” who’ve participated in the massacre sit down to a palatial lunch, with fine old wines, at tables covered in heirloom linen. In their minds this is not a barbaric pastime but, on the contrary, a gentlemanly one. And it is still very much the province of men, though the ladies may join them for lunch.
In fact, I suspect that they would be just as glad if the ladies didn’t join them. Though these ex-public-school acquaintances of mine are all staunchly heterosexual, it is striking how much more at ease — happier — they seem in the company of men. Four of the five are divorced, while the fifth one seems to spend a great deal more time with his chums than with his wife. Apart from the afore-mentioned inability to express emotion directly, the simplest explanation of their women trouble is that, educated in all-male establishments from the age of seven, they never really learned to relate to females as fully human beings. A psychologist who’s made a special study of ex-public-schoolboys’s neuroses has a more complex theory: having felt abandoned by the mothers who sent them away at seven, they are left with a lifelong distrust of women, she claims, and a lifelong grudge against them.
But perhaps this problem, too, is on its way to being solved, since many public schools have now become coeducational. Eton and Harrow, the two most famous, are not among them, yet even at Eton there are concerted efforts to tackle the issue of “toxic masculinity,” not only in history and literature classes but in workshops specially designed for the purpose. In one, the boys were told to “place cushions under their jumpers [sweaters] and imagine there was a baby in their wombs and above their vaginas”. Another Eton workshop, run by something called the School of Sexuality Education, was on the topic of “Positivity, Feminism, and Pornography”. The school has also pledged to “decolonize its curriculum” by teaching the history of Britain and its empire through a much more critical lens. And while it has welcomed Indian and African princes and the sons of Asian billionaires for decades, minority students from poor rather than plutocratic backgrounds are increasingly being offered scholarships. Similar progressive initiatives, some focusing on sexism, some on racism and imperialism and the legacy of the slave trade, others on recruiting minority pupils, have also been launched at Harrow and Radley and Wellington (which has expressed its support for Black Lives Matter) among others.
You might think, given all the articles and books attacking the public schools, and the repeated calls for their abolition, that these moves towards a more enlightened perspective on race and sex and colonialism would be widely applauded. Nothing could be further from the case. When, for example, articles appeared in the traditionally working-class tabloids about the steps being taken to make Eton not just more inclusive, which everybody agrees is a good idea, but less conservative in its teaching, a good three-quarters of the comments left by readers were critical, with half sounding downright indignant. It’s not really clear why this should be so. But maybe, with the whole world crumbling around us — physically, socially, politically — people need to believe that some things, at least, will never change, whether they like those things or not. Maybe they feel there should always be an Eton, the sight of its striped-trousered, tail-coated pupils, with their spotless white bow ties, arousing not just derision and disapproval but nostalgia and pride as well — the same confusion of emotions with which so many of the British now regard their entire heritage in this woke age we live in.