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Personal story: Eton and the need to win

The Newcastle is Eton's premier academic prize and has many famous past winners, including Boris Johnson, but rather than bringing enlightenment, pursuing it led me to a dark place. 

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One of the few things I have in common with Boris Johnson is that we both have our names on a board marking the winners and medallists of the Newcastle Scholarship at Eton. Actually, that is not quite right. I won the old-style Newcastle Scholarship, covering both classics and divinity, in 1975 and Johnson won the Newcastle Classical Scholarship in 1981, after the classics and divinity elements had been separated.

Let me quickly explain why any of this might matter. The Newcastle has always been Eton’s premier academic prize. When it was founded by the 4th Duke of Newcastle in 1829, as a serious and well-funded attempt to restore high-minded academic and moral values to a school seen as deficient in Christian ethics, it attracted widespread attention.

Among its winners have been academic, legal, literary, administrative and political figures of some distinction: they include the poet and polymath Patrick Shaw-Stewart, the Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham, the Conservative cabinet ministers Douglas Hurd and William Waldegrave, the classicists Roger Mynors, Richard Jenkyns and Armand D’Angour, and of course Johnson.

Examiners for the prize include William Ewart Gladstone (who left Eton just before the prize was instituted). Gladstone, by the way, was “delighted” when he heard of the Newcastle’s creation and especially that it would be awarded “not for Divinity or Classical proficiency alone, but to him who should be found to combine most of the latter with a stated quantity of the former”. He considered the Divinity element to be a “sine qua non”.

The lengths early candidates went to in order to secure the honour almost beggar belief, as David Butterfield’s fascinating short history of the Newcastle makes clear. Patrick Shaw-Stewart (who was killed serving in France in 1917) worked so hard that all his hair fell out. The extreme exertions of Henry Hallam (brother of Arthur, dedicatee of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”), who won the medal aged 15, permanently damaged his health (he died aged 26). The Liberal politician and proprietor of the Times John Walter wrote: “I should not wish one of my sons to get [the Newcastle]… I think it has the effect of stimulating early talent too soon, and that a boy very soon pays for it in afterlife.”

Nothing quite like that happened to me at Eton, or to Boris Johnson, but I do remember that the effort of undertaking this marathon exam (the divinity part alone covered the Acts of the Apostles, St Matthew’s gospel – both read in Greek – and the Doctrine of the Atonement) in the term before A-levels was considerable. After the last paper I headed straight to the school pub, Tap, and downed a couple of pints of bitter.

The extreme eccentricity and antiquatedness of the Newcastle didn’t really strike me then. In retrospect I would count it – especially the divinity part, which introduced me to the fascinating realm of historical New Testament scholarship – among my most rewarding learning experiences.

At the time what was important was winning. Scholarships, prizes and honours were pretty much all that mattered to me then (I suspect they were quite important to Boris Johnson also). In my defence, I would say that this was endemic to the Eton system, especially if you were a King’s Scholar, or “Colleger”, like Johnson and me. Your place in the hierarchy (the official one at least) was determined by academic performance. After the termly school exams called Trials, the results were read out publicly, in reverse order.

This cult of winning was rooted in the classical world. Among the texts we read was Book Five of Virgil’s Aeneid, devoted to the athletic games Aeneas holds in Sicily in honour of his father Anchises. It seemed to be all about coming first, by fair means or foul (in the foot race Nisus trips a fellow runner so that his beloved Euryalus can win – the Johnson version might miss out the last clause). Behind that were the victory odes of the Greek lyric poet Pindar, who in Olympian 6.11 wrote that, “Many remember when something is done well as a result of hard effort!”

Put slightly differently, the necessity of winning at all costs – even perhaps at the cost of one’s health – was the prime message I brought away from Eton. It took me a while to begin to question the wisdom and salutariness of this message.

Taken to extremes the classical cult of victory through excellence could mean the prize was valued above the process. One might even forget what one was striving for in the first place. In the early accounts of competing for the Newcastle recorded by Butterfield, there is enormous emphasis on the effort to win, and remarkably little on any of the thoughts, ideas or feelings generated by the subject-matter.

I can only speculate on how all this may have influenced Boris Johnson, but I know how it affected me. It led me to quite a dark place in my early twenties, when, having abandoned a PhD on Greek tragedy I’d embarked on partly to gain time for creative writing, I felt I’d gone down a blind alley. Winning prizes and scholarships wasn’t a life plan and didn’t necessarily help you find out what you really wanted to be, or do. I had to ask myself why I was so addicted to winning (I have not entirely recovered, as friends at my tennis club could attest).

Boris Johnson is easily underestimated, both as a classicist (he is a very able one) and as a politician. He is very good at winning. The costs have turned out to be considerable, for others – remember the ten-year-old boy bulldozed by the then Mayor of London charging for the line in a game of touch rugby in Japan – and for Johnson himself and his family. I wonder if he has ever deeply pondered what the winning is really for, and why he is so addicted to it.

Plutarch relates the story of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose “victories” (the original pyrrhic ones) over the Romans at the battles of Heraclea and Asculum left his forces so reduced that he is said to have remarked that, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”. 

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?