Classy Guy

I Was Eton’s Only Out Schoolboy

Piers Torday, the prize-winning children’s author, recalls coming out at 15 at the elite British boarding school, where he faced little bullying, but lots of questions.

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,” wrote Gore Vidal, and, after a year of trying with limited success to get my own children’s book published, it was with a certain envy-sickness in the stomach that I saw my old school friend Piers Torday has won the Guardian children’s fiction prize for his second book, The Dark Wild, which, together with his first, The Last Wild, tells the story of a young boy living in a futuristic dystopia who can talk to animals. Both books are to be published together in America next week, on January 22, and the concluding part of the trilogy will follow in due course.

In fact, success couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and, once the nausea passed, I was delighted for him.

Piers and I were in the same year at Eton College, in fact we even chose the same ‘tutor’, an English ‘beak’ (as the teachers were called) who acted as a mentor, with whom we would meet in a small group of six once a week. Whilst most of the names and faces and biographical details of the kids I attended school with have faded into obscurity, Piers’ never will, despite the fact that I haven’t seen him for over 20 years.

In fact, I would go as far as to say I don’t think there is a single Old Etonian of my generation who wouldn’t remember Piers Torday—the reason being that Piers came out at Eton when he was 15. He was the only out boy in the school, which numbered 1250 students.

At the time it just seemed funny, a bit bizarre, slightly unbelievable. It’s only now that I realize that Piers must have good claim to being the bravest Etonian that ever studied there.

His book, perhaps unsurprisingly, features a protagonist who is something of an outsider too.

Set in a non-specific middle-future blighted by climate change, when an Ebola-like disease called Red Eye has decimated the animal kingdom, our hero, Kester, discovers he can talk to animals and is sent on a mission by a chatty cockroach to a mysterious realm known as The Last Wild, where some animals—in need of his help—live on.

When I speak to Piers on the phone, and after exchanging the usual pleasantries one trades with someone you haven’t seen for 20 years, we got chatting about his book.

“I just really wanted to write a story for kids that, while not claiming to have the solutions, asked questions,” says Piers, “To say to them, ‘Look, it’s not just human beings that live on this planet, there are two and a half million other species as well. And what do you want to do about it? Do you want it to be just us—or do you want it to be us and some other animals, because if you want it to be us and some other animals, you might want to think about it a bit.’

“It’s actually almost too late for our generation to do anything. We, us, our parents, our forefathers have done a lot of the damage. But it’s the kids of today and their kids, they’re the ones that are going to have to come up with the smart solutions, whether they are ecological, behavioral, economic, or, probably, a mixture of all three.”

And how much did his experience of being an out gay boy at Eton influence the story?

“I feel myself it probably goes back a bit further, back to prep school. I went away to prep school, boarding, when I was nine.”

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Did he know he was gay at prep school (which ends at age 13 in the UK)?

“No, but I had a very strong sense of being different but I didn’t really know why. But I’ve written a story about a boy trying to escape. You don’t need to be Dr. Freud to see that there’s obviously something going on in my subconscious there.”

One of the things I always liked about Eton was that, contrary to the common perception, there was almost no bullying at the school, and eccentricity and difference was positively celebrated.

Was Piers bullied there after he came out?

“Very little. There was some sniggering, but there was certainly no upsetting or traumatic bullying. What there were instead, because of course it was bloody Eton, were lots of quite intense intellectual arguments, more like the kind of political arguments you would see being played out about homosexuality—‘Is it natural? Is it right?’

“By and large I was so lucky because everyone at school was pretty supportive. Of course I wasn’t happy at times, and the way I came out was kind of by mistake.”

So how did it happen?

“Those feelings build up in you, and I kind of just let them out, and, without even thinking, I just told someone. We were out rowing or something and I told him without really thinking; is this the right person to tell? Is he ready? I think he just couldn’t take it all on himself, so although I said, ‘You mustn’t tell anyone, you mustn’t tell anyone,’ he did. I want to stress I attach no blame to him. We are still good friends. I was just incredibly naïve. I was so wrapped up in my own experience, I actually didn’t realize how difficult it would be for my friends to cope with.”

I recall myself how fast the news spread through the school.

“People’s response was curiosity. I didn’t get one classic, ‘You’re a faggot,’ there was none of that,” says Piers.

“In the end it was a very happy experience but if I’d thought about it a bit more I probably would have been a bit more cautious about it. But by and large, what I’ve always thought about Eton is that people were very supportive, given that it was late 80s, early 90s and the papers were full of headlines about people battling to block the age of consent [from becoming equal for gay and straight people] and AIDS.”

Since leaving Eton, Piers has set up a club for gay Old Etonians, the Dragonflies.

“Now we’ve got someone who left Eton in 1946 and somebody who left Eton in 2012,” he says, “There are kids at the school now who are basically out.”

Piers is a huge defender of his alma mater, and, like me, is always rather defensive about the presumptions people who never went there make about the place.

“When I was at Eton, Peter Tatchell [the leading human rights activist] came to talk there. I can’t think of many other public schools that would have had a sort of radical human rights campaigner like Peter Tatchell to speak to their boys like in the early 90s. I think the tragedy of Eton is there’s only one of them. It’s just so few people that get to go there. It’s not necessarily the institution itself.”