I honestly didn’t realise I’d been to a ‘minor’ public school until my first term at Christ Church. Before that, I thought — as all of us did at my alma mater — that though of course there were lots of other public schools out there, Malvern could hold its head high with the very best of them. So coming up to Oxford was a bit of a shock. As far as the Etonians and Wyckhamists and Wets were concerned, my school was so obscure and worthless I might have attended a shabby comprehensive.
Among those who very much gave off this vibe was David Cameron. Dave was never aggressively snobbish but then Etonians are much subtler than that. They assert their superiority with tiny signifiers, like the way they talk about ‘school’ as if it has a capital S, and also with that weapons-grade charm. They’re so grand they don’t even look down on you, rather they feel awkward for you: ‘Such a pity, you poor dear chap, you didn’t have the education we did…’
Anyway, the other day I found myself back at Malvern for the first time in two decades and I felt instantly ashamed for ever having felt ashamed of it. God, what a stunning place! The Worcestershire Beacon looming dramatically above that classic Victorian public school gothic main building, and below it the first XI pitch (which of course I never graced, except when it became the finishing line for Malvern’s famously gruelling cross-country run, the Ledder). You take these things for granted when you’re there, but now I was seeing it anew, this time through the eyes of Girl, who knew instantly she wanted to come here more than she’d ever wanted anything in the world. Girl is right. Why did it take me till now to appreciate just how lucky I was?
On our tour of the school, I kept being assailed by Proustian flashbacks: the signed moon-landing photograph by Apollo astronaut Jim Irwin, who’d come to give the school lecture in my second year in 1980, and had rather unsettled me by declaring: ‘God walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon’; those prints by Ceri Richards whose degree of fame I was never sure of at the time and still am not now; the Gaunt study centre where I sat warding off hay fever in the summer of ’84 by the huge gothic window looking out onto the far sports fields next to the spy centre formerly known as the RSRE, reading Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid because it’s the kind of obscure book that gets Oxford interviewers really impressed.
The older I get, the more stupid and self-defeating I realise it is to wish your life had been somehow different. (Though I’d still probably take the Winston Churchill gig.) For example, I know that if I’d bought that three-bedroomed flat just off Portobello Road for £120,000 in the early Nineties as I should have done, I would never have met my wife or had my kids.
And if I’d never gone to Malvern I would have missed out on so many of those essential experiences that make me me. Take cross-country running, which I doubt I would have ever taken up in one of those less aggressively sporty schools where you were left free to pursue your own interests. Sometimes it’s good to be forced out of your comfort zone: at Malvern, in my day at least, being Oxbridge material didn’t win you much credibility; but sporting prowess did, and since rugger, football and cricket clearly weren’t options I had to find an alternative where training and determination were more important than skill.
I still dream of the Ledder, the seven-and-half-mile run up one side of the Malvern Hills and down the other, taking in an especially boggy uphill stretch called Shit Alley. With my first stag hunt and that time we were lined up and thought we were going to be shot in Uganda, it’s perhaps the most intense experience I’ve ever had: ecstasy and purgatory rolled into one, the endorphins and the competitive buzz and the beauty of the Herefordshire/Worcestershire countryside blurring with the burning lungs and thumping heart and mud-clagged feet and gasping, gob-spattered mouth. Hell, it made me the man I am today.
As, indeed, did Malvern generally. Sure I might have had just as brilliant a time if I’d gone to Eton, but I fear I might have emerged subtly different in a way not necessarily to my advantage. Eton trains you to be a chameleon — you can be everything from prime minister to a Baltimore cop in The Wire — whereas I’m much more useful as an awkward bugger. And though I’m not saying Eton can’t do awkward buggers too (Shelley, Orwell), I think it might have encouraged in me a fatal complacency. If Eton has a flaw, it’s that it’s too perfect in every way: to have gone there is to spend the whole of the rest of your life feeling as if you have been cast out of paradise.
Cameron, no question, is a victim of this syndrome. The impression Etonians always gave at Oxford was that the college quads, however grand, were a pale imitation of the one Henry VI had built for them at School. I’ve no doubt that for Dave, poxy No. 10 Downing Street is even more of a comedown. The result is that disastrous sense of entitlement so many of Cameron’s kind have. Because he believes the job is his due, he feels no compulsion to strive to make himself worthy of it.
I dare say I have flaws of my own, but my former Etonian chum’s aren’t among them. I’m my own man, I’m happy in my skin, I always say exactly what I think and I’ve never had to betray my principles. Thank you Malvern. Thanks for everything.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 17, 2011