The price one pays for an education at Eton, Britain’s oldest and most famous school, is a superiority complex that lingers long after it should have been beaten out of you by the realities of life. My own Etonian sense of superiority is somewhat less pronounced than many of my former school mates, on account of having been expelled from the place shortly before my 17th birthday (for having girls in my room, since you ask). It’s hard to stay arrogant when the home of arrogance has told you to sod off.
But my schoolboy arrogance was stirred into life again on Wednesday night when I sat down to watch a new fly-on-the-wall documentary series broadcast on Sky 1 in the U.K. (and eventually destined for American screens), about the school that was our great and despised rival, Harrow. Each school patronizingly refers to its competitor as “the other place.”
The Eton-Harrow rivalry reaches its zenith each year at a great cricket match held at Lords, the finest cricket ground in the country, where international matches are usually played during the rest of the year. Eton boys were allowed to get drunk; a blind eye was turned to the grossest inebriation as long as they were not actually sick on the bus on the way home.
As far as I can recall, our principal objection to Harrovians was that they had to wear very foolish looking straw boaters on their heads. There was also some resentment that their school was nearer London, and I think we secretly feared that Harrovians were cooler than us. Harrovians were also judged to be a bit thick, as the school was not as academically demanding as Eton.
It’s not really much of a basis for all-consuming hatred. Watching Harrow: A Very British School last night, I found myself like the First World War soldiers who, when they finally made it over the top and saw that the trenches of the other side were just as wet and awful as their own, not stuffed with food and blankets as they had been told, were overcome by their common humanity with the enemy.
And indeed the similarities with Eton were plentiful and striking: the stupid uniforms (we had tail coats, they had boaters), the punishment forcing us to get up early for being late or untidily dressed (they had to sign “Custos Report”, we had to sign “Tardy Book”), and mindless copying of “lines” for minor infractions (they called it “double” we called it “Georgics”). Many of the new boys (‘shells’ at Harrow, ‘tits’ at Eton, yes, really) were just as hopelessly and self-pityingly homesick as I was at Eton.
After I had watched the Harrow documentary (part one of an eight-part series), I did something I haven’t done in over twenty years: I watched (on YouTube) the Cutting Edge documentary Eton: Class of ‘91. It was filmed at Eton in the early nineties, when I was a student there. However, it wasn’t broadcast until after I was expelled, which made for rather awkward viewing when we went round to a friend of my mum’s house to watch it. I have a brief role in the show, speaking Japanese in the brand new Japanese class.
I was so filled with anger, fake bravado, and shame after being expelled that it is only in the past few years, since my children have reached school age, that I have been able to begin to accept the truth about Eton: while it may not have been able to “fix” the rebellious instincts of a severely troubled teenager, it did give me the most formidable education. The most valuable thing Eton taught me was not the dates of the kings and queens of England or any other set of facts, all long since forgotten.
Eton taught me how to concentrate.
After I was expelled, I went to my local state school (I was a scholarship boy and, much to my horror, there was no spare cash floating around to pack me off to another fee-paying school). It was a well-needed kick to the backside. My time there was more than fine; I was never bullied, I made friends for life, and I got into Edinburgh University.
But I noticed none of my friends there knew how to concentrate. I did, thanks to Eton, and it saved my bacon. Watching Eton, Class of ‘91 reminded me of this, and of all the happy times I had in that amazingly privileged place, before things went irretrievably wrong.
It’s a marvelous film, a nuanced, fair, and elegant evocation of an extraordinary institution, so many millions of miles away from the shouty, tabloid, reality-show style of Harrow: A Very British School. Harrow has showed an appalling lapse of judgment in letting this sensation-seeking film crew inside their school, and one suspects that the head master must be shuddering at the thought that there are another seven episodes of this garbage to go.
Of course, Harrow might be as wonderful as Eton, and it could just be that the film-making is so bad it is hard to compare the two fairly. But, as an old Etonian, even one who left in disgrace, I doubt it. And watching these two programs side by side makes one feel infinitely happier to have been expelled from Eton than from Harrow.