A blog about pictures and places and books and unusual museums and everything from Z to C (that is, absolutely everything in existence, provided one takes an anarchic view of alphabetical order) Above all, it's an aide memoire for me
Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Eamonn to That
In the Guardian, while writing about George Orwell's posthumously published essay on his days at prep school, Sam Leith confesses to being an old Etonian and presents a version of how an Etonian's character is formed that is rather different from the one mentioned here the other day:
"... its forms and hierarchies were easily internalised. I attribute to my education not only an uncountable number of advantages and privileges, but some of the characteristics I find least attractive in myself. I have a craven teacher-pleasing tendency: a deference to authority and a desire to excel within parameters established by others rather than to challenge those parameters. I am a more conventional – sometimes timid – thinker than I would like.
One aspect of that school's setup – the prefect system – still seems to me a stroke of ideological genius: an object lesson in co-option. There, as in St Cyprian's and any comparable institution, "virtue consisted in winning": the strong and beautiful attracted hero-worship. So the apex prefect body, "Pop", is self-elective: the most popular boys – ie those most in a position to lead others astray – are also the most thoroughly bought and sold.
Their special privilege is to peacock about in coloured waistcoats – and for this, they will dutifully and without pay perform tedious prison-trusty duties such as spending hours in the rain on Windsor bridge preventing younger boys sneaking to the pub. What is cleverest is that they wear the price at which they've been bought – shiny buttons and a swatch of brightly coloured cloth – on their chests.
We can certainly see about us those – need we mention names? – to whom politics seems to be the continuation of private school by other means. For those forever striving to regain the intoxication of having been a gilded god at 18, a cabinet post shines as the equivalent of election to Pop, and the prime ministerial job as the ultimate combination of head boy and victor ludorum.
At the same time there is a strong tradition of public schools acting on certain temperaments to produce absolutely the opposite: rebels whose anti-establishment zeal seems to have been fired by exposure to the rituals of that establishment at an early age. From Shelley (Eton) to Paul Foot (Shrewsbury), Tam Dalyell (Eton) to Tony Benn (Westminster), many prominent figures on the left have been public schoolboys.
"A school could be conducive to that, if you have a certain kind of mind, because it is a sort of oppressive dictatorship in miniature," says Karl Marx's biographer and Private Eye stalwart Francis Wheen. "Some of us found it so oppressive that we rebelled against it. I hated Harrow so much that I ran away when I was 16 and left a note for my parents saying: 'I've gone to join the Alternative Society' and scampered off to London and lived in a squat. It's fair to say in my case that my politics was formed in reaction to Harrow."
Talking about the current schisms in the Socialist Workers party, Wheen points out that the party's leader Alex Callinicos, grandson of the 2nd Lord Acton, was educated at a top private school and another senior leader, Charlie Kimber, is the Old Etonian son of a baronet. Also prominent in the brouhaha has been Dave Renton, an Old Etonian barrister related to a former Tory chief whip: "It sometimes reads like a conversation between Old Rugbeians and Old Etonians about the main British Trotskyist party. It's quite bizarre."
There is a popular school of thought, indeed, that holds that the treachery of the Cambridge spy ring was a reaction against their public school educations – an idea explored psychologically in (Old Wykehamist) Julian Mitchell's fine 1981 play Another Country. Lindsay Anderson's film If …, meanwhile, dramatised the idea of the public school rebel as a sort of violent dream."
There is one aspect of Leith's analysis that I am unconvinced by and that is his belief that his deference to authority and unwillingness to challenge parameters is due to his education. To the extent that I am any kind of thinker at all, I am, like Leith, "a more conventional - sometimes timid - thinker than I would like". Sadly though, I believe that tendency is something one is born with; it is ingrained in one's essential character, rather than something one is taught. I wonder if others feel the same.
I wrote a novel that the London literary agency Sheil Land tried to sell for me. One publisher thought it was "compelling". Another said, "It’s pacy and gripping, and the plot is great." A third commented that it "is a warm, engaging and easy read", while a fourth considered that, "It is a good story (stories) well told". If you want to see what you think, you can find it here.
I wrote a novel, represented by Sheil Land. One publisher thought it was "compelling, but it wouldn’t be easy to categorize – it is somewhere between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’, and would need to be one or the other to be pitched for successfully in an acquisition meeting." Another said, 'It’s pacy and gripping, and the plot is great, but it lacks that lighter women’s fiction feeling. The writing is undeniably good but I’m not quite sure how I would position it on our list.'A third commented that it "is a warm, engaging and easy read but this ‘middle market fiction’ is a really tough area', while a fourth considered that, "It is a good story (stories) well told, but just missing the X-factor that would make me fall in love with it." I wanted to write an entertaining novel that I would like when I was in the mood for something thoughtful & amusing that I could enjoy without too much effort. If you would like to read it yourself, you can find it at http://cargocollective.com/Unrealities/Holding-On-a-novel.