One of the stranger consequences of getting into Oxford is that you become, whether you like it or not, a beneficiary of the establishment. Lazy stereotypes about cleverness and merit become assumptions that it would no longer be wise to challenge.
I think most Oxbridge graduates know this, which is why we spend so much time trying to underplay or apologise for our ill-gotten gains. We say things like, “I went to a comprehensive” (which requires no further explanation), or “I went to a state school” (which is a way of saying “I went to a grammar”), or “I went to a grammar” (which means “I went to a private school with the words ‘Grammar School’ in the title”), or “Well, I didn’t go to Eton” (which means “I went to a very, very posh school, but not the one everyone’s heard of”).
I went to a comprehensive, but I’ve spent as much time being asked questions about Eton, of which I know nothing, as I have about my university, Oxford. Small wonder, when you consider a third of our postwar prime ministers have been Old Etonians, including the present incumbent. This is also true of his business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg and a host of other MPs, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury and many luminaries from across the arts and sciences.
Yet personal accounts of the school are rare: David Cameron devotes just three of his memoir’s 700 pages to his time at the school (in them, he admits his O-level results were “for Eton, distinctly mediocre”). In fact, One of Them, by the poet and writer Musa Okwonga, is the first detailed memoir of life at Eton for close to 50 years.
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Okwonga is a writer worth waiting half a century for: One of Them slips along so gracefully that I spent the last few chapters in a state of horror that the book didn’t have much longer to run. He is an Old Etonian of a type I think anyone who has been to a prestigious university will loosely recognise: those inhabitants of, as Okwonga puts it, “small towns in the Thames Valley” with “middle-class professionals” for parents, a description that applies as much to Kwarteng (the son of a barrister and a civil servant) or the Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami (the son of a doctor and a pharmacist) as it does to Okwonga (whose mother was a doctor).
This is also a type of pupil that is vanishing fast: fees at Eton have more than trebled in the 20 years since Okwonga left, making his story impossible to repeat now. While they are perhaps not the most sympathetic occupants of Ed Miliband’s “squeezed middle”, these children of consultants and doctors, whose parents can no longer afford to send them to England’s grandest public schools, are a symptom of the United Kingdom’s anaemic wage growth. “It is grim to think that the journey I took… is no longer possible for boys like me,” Okwonga writes.
The absence of future Okwongas from Eton’s list of alumni is a bigger loss for the school than either it or, at times, Okwonga himself appears to realise. One of Them is such a good advert for the place that, at one point, I paused to look up the fees, momentarily forgetting that I don’t have a spare £14,000 to burn every term or, for that matter, a child.
It’s not just Okwonga’s prose that sells the school. Yes, he writes about the lavish facilities and all the extra-curricular opportunities, but it is a less tangible asset – confidence – that stands out. He writes how, after his fourth year, “something…settled within me. I am secure in my presence here, my school uniform sits easily on my frame.” One of his friends suggests: is this just what they call puberty? To which I thought, well, certainly not in my experience or that of anyone I went to school with.
That aside, One of Them is a richly observed book, packed with elegant descriptions of life on a football field, experiences of racism, of love and of friendship. Some parts I immediately recognised. When Okwonga recounts a day ruined by being stopped and searched by police, reflecting on “the spontaneous joy that we might have found up ahead”, I thought: I’ve had days spoiled like that. Other parts are distinctly Etonian: he writes of his unease at the way pupils talked about the “lebs” – ie, plebs – and the knowledge that they were laughing at the people he grew up alongside. But, on the whole, it is clear that going to Eton is an extraordinary and privileged experience, and one that Okwonga largely enjoyed.
The confidence that Eton bestows on its students, though, comes with a sense of obligation. “So few black boys get to come here,” he writes at one point, and “I blew it”. He has failed, he believes, to take full advantage of the benefits of the education he received. To which I would say: if this one book were the beginning, middle and end of my professional career, I would count it as a success.
Okwonga is surely right to note that Eton’s flourishing has come at the expense of the country; I’m not wholly convinced that its flourishing hasn’t come at the expense of its alumni, too. For all this book left me full of envy and desire for an Eton education, it also left me relieved to have escaped being an Old Etonian.
One of Them: An Eton College Memoir
Unbound, 224pp, £8.99
This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people