I was just traipsing across the fields towards Common Lane, there to collect Boy en route to his St Andrews’ Day F-Blockers’ exhibition match of the Wall Game, when I was accosted by a splendid, Spectator-reading type who’d parked his car next to mine.
‘Are you James Delingpole?’ he asked.
I admitted that I was. We got talking. There was only one possible reason for my being there, as he and I both knew. ‘Do you think I should finally out myself?’ I said. ‘I mean I’ve been living the lie for what seems like an age. And it’s so unlike me to keep secrets from my readers. Let’s face it, fearless and frank autobiography rather is my schtick.’ My new friend agreed that perhaps the time had come. So here goes. I have become an Eton parent.
‘But why would you want to send your boy to a school where he’s going to be stigmatised for life?’ asked another friend (whose boy is going to Winchester — so, like, he can talk…).
The easy answer would be that it wasn’t my choice, it was Boy’s. His appetite was whetted at about seven when he read Charlie Higson’s Young James Bond books, many of which are set at ‘School’. Then he went to Papplewick, which is one of Eton’s feeder preps, so inevitably he was keen to go where lots of his friends are going. What it really came down to, though, was the kit.
And I don’t blame him for this, because it was why I most wanted him to go there too. (That was also the real reason I took up fox-hunting, by the way. So I had a legitimate reason to look splendid in a black hunt coat with a stock and a gold stock pin.) As all dads will know, one’s Boy is an extension of one’s ego. (Or similar.) Watching him striding down Eton High Street like he owns the place in his tailcoat, pinstripe trousers and starched collar is a bit like owning a Lamborghini Murciélago — only better, because Murciélagos don’t contain 50 per cent of your genes.
One of the reasons you would buy a Murciélago, of course, is as what’s technically known as a ‘fuck-off gesture’. You’re perfectly aware that there are lots of begrudgers out there who want to scrape a key down the side of your gleaming toy — and this is part of the appeal. The same is true of being an Eton parent. Well it certainly is in my case.
This envy and hatred comes from all sorts of directions, not least from all those parents who’d traditionally have considered their sons a shoo-in for School but now realise they have to settle for Radley (or similar) instead because Eton has grown far too academic.
‘Eton isn’t what it was,’ you’ll hear them complain. And it’s true: it isn’t. Not only is it harder to get into but the social (and ethnic) mix is much broader. Twenty per cent of the boys are on bursaries and the school is trying to raise sufficient funds for it to become completely needs-blind. This is the reason that an impoverished oik like me can send his Boy there: it would have been quite impossible otherwise.
But the more obvious resentment is a product of the deeply ingrained inverted snobbery, blind prejudice and weapons-grade ignorance which are the hallmarks of contemporary Britain. This is what my friend was talking about when he asked ‘Why Eton?’ Sure, being an OE isn’t a total bar to success in the modern world — as the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Damien Lewis, Harry Lloyd et al could testify. You only have to notice how often so many of the above spend apologising for their education, though, to realise what a poisoned chalice it is. Dominic West (out of The Wire) once described it as ‘a stigma that is slightly above “paedophile” in the media in a gallery of infamy’.
Poor Dominic. Actually, not poor -Dominic, for I’m not buying this rubbish for one second. OK, so I’ve only got one term’s experience — sorry, one half’s experience — to go on so far, and it’s not like Boy, being 14, communicates with me an awful lot. But from what little I’ve gathered about his time there so far, I’d say he’s currently among the 1,300 luckiest boys on earth.
He spends his every day surrounded by extensive playing fields and glorious architecture dating as far back as the school’s foundation in 1440, in the company of 260 sparky, multitalented, über-intelligent year mates, with unrivalled facilities, Oxbridge-class teaching, superb pastoral care, bags of gloriously arcane traditions, all in a unique atmosphere where you learn from very early on that discipline needs to come from within rather than being imposed from above. Plus, of course, all the posh birds want to get into your pinstripe trousers. Oh that any of us ordinary folk should have such troubles!
And if, at the end of his five years in paradise, Boy ends up getting a bit of stick for all that privilege — well, as his father, I say: ‘Bring it on!’ With luck, what it will mean is that Boy will learn the most important lessons I’ve learned in life, which are ‘Damn the torpedoes!’ and ‘Always stick to what you believe is right and true regardless of what the vile mob and pusillanimous chattering classes consider fashionable.’
Eton is the embodiment of all that is good and noble in the world. It has nothing to apologise for. May it flourish!