With the same coat of inevitability with which everything else gets glossed, it now seems inevitable to me that
I ended up at Eton. But it was never any such thing. None of my family had been to the school or anything like it. Like most parents, mine had put their faith in state schools, not simply because they believed in them but because no other option was viable. I attended the local state primary and secondary schools and then to what had been a grammar school, but was now an inner city comprehensive.
My parents had been promised that the old grammar school standards and ethos remained, but none did. By the time I arrived the school was what would now be described as ‘an inner-city sink school’, a war zone similar to those many of the children’s parents had escaped from. After I left, a pupil went to prison for raping and threatening to kill one of the female teachers. My parents withdrew me after a year. By now I had become a voracious reader and, thanks to a free local music school and gentle parental encouragement, a musician. As a result I won a place at a small but good local independent school. And it was after a spell there that, one day, a peripatetic music teacher my father knew suggested I try for something called the sixth-form scholarship at Eton.
I suppose I was getting itchy feet anyway. Fifteen is a good time to leave home. With my parents I looked around a number of schools which had scholarships for sixth form. And one afternoon my parents drove me out to Eton.
I still remember the familiar squash of nerves, and that faltering teenage effort to cover them up with insouciance. But from the moment I arrived I knew I wanted to stay.
The first man I met was the head of music, Ralph Allwood. Relaxed, down-to-earth and completely inspiring, he had what I would soon recognise as a trait among certain teachers at Eton: an ability to listen as though you were the first precocious youth they had heard say such things, and then the seamless guiding of you on to further ideas and possibilities. I still remember feeling both flattered and ambitious as I walked around the main quadrangle with the head of English, talking with him about Auden and Yeats and wanting to know so much more.
I don’t know now whether I realised then how much hung on these apparently informal chats and the follow-on tests. But the outcome was positive. The school made an offer to my parents to educate me for two years for slightly less than the cost of feeding me at home.
And so I became an Etonian: one of a band of people both greatly blessed and slightly cursed. I remember realising early on the way the curse worked. Going through the newspaper one morning I read a story about an ‘Old Etonian’ who had gone bankrupt. Not an unheard-of event, but it had been transformed into news because of the school the man had attended in his youth.
But far outweighing this negative, either then or now, were the sheer opportunities of being there. And never in the way people think. I have never known, nor ever seen, any advantage in working life from ‘the old school tie’. Far from it. Any Etonian who tried to use the old school tie would find it a garrote.
The advantage was the education. I had wonderful tutors at university, but after Eton even Oxford was disappointing. Strange, intoxicatingly exciting moments still remain with me. There was one particular English teacher who encouraged my budding interest in book-collecting. Whenever I had saved up and bought some new book from Blackwell’s I would take it to him. We would look through it and discuss it. Then we would roam through other books on the shelves, taking them down and talking about and around them. This was all in his spare time.
One summer evening in a discussion about the book I wanted to write in my gap year (a biography of a poet), I remember him telling me that he had himself discovered just the day before that the poet Lionel Johnson had been an influence on Ezra Pound. And I remember him saying, quietly and simply, ‘there’s so much to know’.
He was one of a set of teachers who encouraged my ambition to write my first book and one of those I owe not only for that, but for much more.
I’ve often been asked why so many Etonians end up in public life in some form or other. Almost everybody gets it wrong. It isn’t just the education. And it’s certainly not entry into some secret society. It is being in a place from which people before you have gone on to do extraordinary things. In that place you are led to suspect — not told, but led to suspect — that if you work at it you might achieve something too.
The state schools I went to had people from them who had gone to university, so I always supposed that was possible. The private school I went to had a Cabinet minister among its old boys, so that became a possible fate. But Eton had everyone: prime ministers and poets, rebels and generals. It was an atmosphere in which people were encouraged to become themselves, to catch up with the life that was waiting for them.
I realise now that the day I met Ralph (who has just retired) was one of the most important in my life, and he one of the most important people in it. Not least because he persuaded me (who didn’t need much persuading) and my parents (who needed a little) to take a leap into a famous yet unknown world. Some friends have just sent their son to the school. I asked what had persuaded them, remembering that the last time I’d seen them they had expressed uncertainty. ‘It was the look you gave when we said he’d got a place and we weren’t sure whether to send him,’ they said. It had been unconscious, but had said it all.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 3, 2011