A Life in Questions
Jeremy Paxman

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Where, you might wonder, were the staff while all this was going on? The answer is that they were always somewhere else. The housemaster lived with his family on the other side of a green baize door. Each house generally had a house tutor, a bachelor who slept somewhere on site, but rarely emerged from his room during daylight. And there was Matron, a woman of about fifty, I suppose, sturdy and ample-bosomed, who wore her hair as I imagined she had worn it ever since she was a teenager. Oddly enough, like Mr Thomas, my old boxing teacher, Matron also had a glass eye.

I don’t know whether there was any formal qualification required to become a matron, though I imagine not, since anything more serious than bruises and sprains from the playing fields was referred to the school doctor. Indeed, when I passed out one day Matron seemed to have very little idea what to do, apart from shouting at me. As at my prep school, our house matron supervised the doling out of tonic and a gooey ‘malt’ to boys who were held to be a bit weedy. But her main role was to bring a little femininity to the testosterone-charged atmosphere in which the boys lived, as a mother substitute. She had a flat in the basement where she would sometimes provide cups of tea to particularly homesick boys, but most of the time, apart from the sessions when she dispensed her malt and witch-hazel, she was to be found in the great linen cupboard, where it was her unhappy job to sort the horrible laundry of sixty boys.

In my last year, Matron conceived a tremendous passion for the house tutor, a bachelor with a wheedling tone of voice and the only natural Mohican hairstyle I have ever seen. Because he had once talked of the nobility of the clerical profession, we called him ‘Scribe’. One night Matron took me into her basement flat and wept her eye out as she told me how Scribe seemed to fail to notice her. Unrequited middle-aged love was not the sort of predicament a teenage boy was well suited to give advice upon.

For the rest, with one or two noble exceptions, the staff were largely absent from our lives. Several seemed to have been recruited solely because they had won sporting blues at Oxford or Cambridge. This seemed to be particularly true of the geography department, where George Chesterton, who had played cricket for both Oxford and Worcestershire, taught the subject unspectacularly, but was widely seen as an amiable Mr Chips figure. (Though not by me, after the day he interrupted my reading of Ludovic Kennedy’s brilliant investigation into the Christie murders and the subsequent execution of Timothy Evans, Ten Rillington Place, picking the book up, jabbing his finger at the author’s name and harrumphing, ‘That man is a disgrace.’ I think he felt that Kennedy – whom I admired, and later came to know and like – was a class traitor for exposing the fact that the state had hanged an innocent man. As an Eton and Oxford man he should have known better.)

Then there was ‘Jimmy B’, an ancient history teacher who began every lesson with a headcount and then said, ‘Who no come?’ and was always digressing into tales of British wars with ‘the Portugoosey’. ‘Zombie’ Nicholls moved with great deliberation around the chemistry labs, played the tuba, and was said to have been responsible at his previous school for allowing the main bridge over the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted to have been blown up by one of his pupils. The remedial maths set, of which I was inevitably part, was taken by ‘Groisy’ Shaw, the nickname an acknowledgement of his obvious devotion to Brylcreem, though his main responsibility was not maths but the woodwork workshop.

We were all barbarians, of course, so inevitably called the oenophile English master ‘Sluice’. Mr Kennedy, who taught Latin, was reputed to belong to the clan of the Victorian author of the immensely tedious Kennedy’s Latin Primer which we all used (the cover invariably doctored to read Kennedy’s Eating Primer). Once a term Mr Kennedy supplied his classes with copies of Acta Diurna, a spoof Latin newspaper packed with terrible cartoons. As with many Latin teachers, his folly was to assume that he spoke like an ancient Roman, his main gag being to ask, ‘When is a yoke not a yoke, boy?’ To which the only permitted answer was, ‘When it’s in Acta Diurna, sir.’ The music department was the domain of Leonard Blake, who rejoiced in the name ‘Charlie Crap’, after the way he sat at the upright piano during choir practice. When the school tried to rein back the use of this nickname it was changed to ‘Charlie half-past-eight’, on the grounds that ‘That’s what you do at 8.30.’

But the majority of the staff were a huge improvement on the deadbeats I had lived with at prep school. It wasn’t until my last year that I had matured enough to appreciate the particular charm of ‘Jeezbeez’, George Sydney Benedict Sayer, the head of English, who had a habit of turning up to lessons apologising for the fact that one’s essay was covered in marmalade, or that ‘the cat seems to have walked all over it’. He had been a close friend of both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Other teachers who did their civilising best in the otherwise rather brutal environment included the thoughtful history master, Ralph Blumenau – of whom it was rumoured that the governing body had only allowed him to teach at the school on condition he didn’t try to infect the boys with his liberal prejudices – and my housemaster, Tony Leng. We all knew that he had served in the Royal Indian Navy, and had won a DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) in the war. He joked to his fellow masters that he’d been decorated for ‘dropping prostitutes with VD behind the Japanese lines’. There may have been a couple of Burmese hookers dropped on the beaches of the Arakan coast, but most of the passengers on his night missions were actually Special Forces soldiers.

Most of life at Malvern revolved around sport, which occurred every afternoon. The high corridor through the main school building was lined with oak-framed noticeboards to which were pinned small sheets of cream-coloured notepaper emblazoned with the school crest and motto (‘Sapiens Qui Prospicit’ – wise is he who looks ahead, which could be a very depressing thought indeed to an unsporty thirteen-year-old) on which were the handwritten names of those who had made it into the teams for forthcoming matches. These were the gilded ones. Anyone who had won a school ‘cap’ or ‘colours’ was a sort of demigod.

Apart from a brief interlude in the cross-country team, where determination counted as much as talent, I did not feature on any of these lists. But no one was immune from the general ethos, for the principles upon which the great nineteenth-century schools were run included much chasing of balls around sports fields, in all weathers. My dominant sensory memory of those days is of chafed skin as the afternoon rain made our long woollen shorts grow heavier and heavier, until our thighs were a brilliant scarlet. Housemasters and other members of staff might occasionally turn out to cheer on their team – few of them to quite the effect of Mr Rambridge, who when required to referee a football match in the rain would drive down to the side of the pitch, opening his window occasionally to blow a whistle if he imagined he’d seen a foul.

Initiation into the world of sport came soon after arrival. I was a tall thirteen-year-old, with no spare flesh anywhere. Unfortunately, my weight and age put me into the one under-14 category in the inter-house boxing competition for which there were no other candidates in the house. I had, in theory, learned to box at prep school, under the unblinking supervision of Mr Thomas’s glass eye, and reckoned I might just about survive a round or two, owing to the fact that I had long enough arms to keep most opponents at bay. Defeat on points in an early round would be sufficient to see honour satisfied.

To my great anxiety, I got a bye into the final. This must have been because the boxers from other houses had seen the fighter from Number Seven house. I stepped into the ring to find myself facing an enormous human tortoise. My adversary was barely five feet tall, and almost as wide. He looked as if he had been shaving since leaving the womb, and wore a creepy smile, which I have only ever seen replicated in horror films as vampires prepare to sink their teeth into a virgin’s neck.

For most of round one I danced around the ring like a badly handled marionette, a blizzard of naked arms and legs, not much caring if I ever connected with the pile of bricks facing me. That didn’t happen very often. The human tortoise emerged for round two having obviously been told what to do, or – less likely – worked it out for himself. As I deployed my spindly jab again, a very odd thing happened. My opponent somehow popped up between my arms. Then he proceeded to hit me repeatedly in the stomach. When I doubled up he turned his attention to my face, upon which he rained a torrent of blows. I felt my lip split, and heard my nose crunch. I soon had no idea what the hell was happening, and failed to hear the bell for the end of the round. My opponent broke off hostilities and started to waddle back to his corner. Suddenly aware that the beating had stopped, I pulled back my right arm and let fly. My one punch landed squarely between his kidneys.

The impact didn’t seem to register too heavily with him – he just turned and glared at me from beneath his low brows. The referee, however, definitely noticed, grabbed me and pushed me towards my corner, where my seconds did their best to wipe the blood off my face. The referee came over, took one look at the mess, and walked to the enemy corner, where he raised my opponent’s arm and declared the ‘fight’ over. It had not been a glorious exit. But I had at least left the ring properly knocked about. I should like to say that it led to a new respect from my classmates, but if so, I didn’t notice it.

Needless to say, being battered in the boxing ring was not the sort of thing you were expected to complain about to your parents. Had I done so, I have no doubt at all that I would have been told it was part of my education, and that I’d just have to put up with it. Because by now the family was in full mimicry of what were presumed to be our betters. Belonging – or appearing to belong – to some period before the Industrial Revolution is one of the very odd ambitions of the British upper-middle class. We were not upper-middle class, as was demonstrated by the listing of High Lea’s location at 262 Old Birmingham Road in the termly ‘Red Book’, which contained the school calendar, the credentials of the staff and the home addresses of all the pupils. Dad had had a pretty swift rise through the management of his steel company, and was now in charge of factories all over the West Midlands and South Wales. High Lea was sold, and we moved well away from anything as urban-sounding as Birmingham Road, to a place in the proper country which had nothing as déclassé as a street number.

In fact, Stonebow House, Peopleton, was not especially grand and not especially old. It had been built in the Vale of Evesham by Fred Allsopp, the jockey who had ridden the 40–1 outsider Sir Hugo to victory in the 1892 Derby. He had chosen a curious style which married Victorianism with mock-Tudor. Not surprisingly, there were lots of stables, numerous outbuildings, and a yard. I seem to recall that the asking price was £13,000, but the depth of the previous owner’s financial troubles became clear when Dad visited the house during the negotiations to buy and had to step around a pig farrowing in the sitting room.* (#ulink_74180058-9452-56a3-abb2-22ee9abc9599)

The part of Worcestershire to which we had moved was splattered with wonderfully-named villages – Drakes Broughton, Elmley Castle, Flyford Flavell, White Ladies Aston and Wyre Piddle among them. Stonebow House stood imposingly on a corner from which a lane led up to the village of Peopleton, surrounded by paddocks and orchards filled with plum and apple trees. Our grounds ran down to a brook lined with elms, and in summer the air was heavy with pollen: Mother complained it made her perpetually drowsy. By the standards of the area, Stonebow was not an especially grand house – in the heart of the village was a Georgian mansion which, local legend had it, had once been the home of Barbara Cartland’s mother.

Father still wore his horrible brass-buttoned blazers, but following the move his voice seemed to undergo a noticeable change. His accent was posher than it had been previously, and the wardroom humour was more evident. Because he now had a much longer journey to and from work, during the holidays when we were at home we saw less of him – he left for the office before we had breakfasted, and when he returned in the evening poured himself a pink gin and retired to his wood-panelled study with the newspaper.

For a couple of years we lived the life of an ersatz country family. My sister Jenny had a succession of ponies, there was a bad-tempered donkey in one of the paddocks, and dogs and cats in the house. The local hunt would meet occasionally outside our house, and both Mother and Jenny rode to hounds. The moment I passed my driving test most weekends were spent towing a horse trailer around for my sister to compete at some gymkhana or other. For a while Dad even joined an organisation called the Country Landowners’ Association, and sometimes, to our utter embarrassment, wore a monocle or plus fours. Once or twice he even borrowed an enormous horse and turned out at a meet of the hunt. He was not a natural horseman.

‘Knowing your place’ was a vital component of life in the fifties and sixties, and while institutions like Malvern offered the opportunity to jump a few steps in the gradations of class, the school itself was run as a rigorous hierarchy. At the top were the tailcoated school prefects, and below them the house prefects, whose authority extended only over the sixty or so boys in their house. Below them in each house were the ‘inferiors’, the longest-serving of whom rejoiced in the title of ‘Senior Inferior’, or ‘SI’. This was a post with no privileges whatsoever, but which had, I felt, a certain cachet. On the two occasions I was promoted to house prefect I never made it to the end of term without being ‘de-pre’d’ for some offence or other – usually to do with smoking, drinking or meeting girls illicitly – and returned to the ranks of the inferiors. At the bottom of the heap were the ‘fags’, who would spend most of their first year slaving for their fag-master house prefect.

There was no job too demeaning for a fag to be given. They were expected to keep their fag-master’s study tidy, to spit-and-polish his shoes and brush his coat, to make him toast during the break between morning lessons, to blanco the belt and shine the brass fastenings he wore when playing soldiers on Wednesday afternoons. On winter mornings there was the ever-present risk of being sent to the freezing lavatory block with orders to warm up a seat before your boss sat down to empty his bowels.

In addition to this drudgery, all junior boys lived in terror of the shout down the corridor of the single word ‘Fag!’ This was the equivalent of shouting ‘Taxi!’ on a London street, and the moment it was heard every junior boy in the house would drop whatever he was doing and tear down the corridor in a flailing mass of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old arms and elbows, in a desperate attempt not to be the last outside the prefects’ common room. The last arrival was given whatever task was at hand – often to run over to one of the other houses, perhaps half a mile away, carrying a note, usually about some upcoming interhouse sports match. A friend who had been given a note to deliver to a named prefect in another house once opened it. It read, in its entirety, ‘Wait five minutes, and then send a note back with this fag.’

After two years of this skivvying you escaped fagging and won the right – assuming you could ever get to the kettle – to make yourself a cup of tea or coffee in the house. By now, aged fifteen, the tricky subject of girls was beginning to raise its head. Contrary to many stories about these institutions, the school was not a hotbed of sodomy. After dark, every house thrummed to the rhythm of the solitary vice, but the obscure objects of our desire tended to be pupils attending one of the six girls’ schools in the area.

There was no universally shared pin-up, but in the minds of a very large proportion of the school there was a small shrine devoted to Amanda Stobbs, the daughter of the housemaster of Number Nine house. Like most of the nineteenth-century public schools Malvern had a Latin anthem, sung at the beginning and end of term by the entire complement of six hundred teenage boys. I sometimes wondered whether, in the Holy of Holies of her bedroom, she could hear all those ignorantly lustful male voices belting out the special emphasis of the chorus:

Age frater, iuxta, fratrem.

Celebremus Almam Matrem.

And then the crashing final lines:

Quae nos ornat, haec ornanda

Quae nos amat, ad AMANDA.

The truth was that if she, or any of the other local beauties, had given any one of us the slightest indication of interest we would probably have run a mile: the sexual revolution of the 1960s took many years to creep into our benighted corridors.

I had learned the facts of life with no thanks to my father or mother. The closest my father ever got to explaining anything like that was his warning when I was well into my teens and about to spend the summer staying with a French family on the Île de Ré that ‘They’re different to us, you know. If you spend the evening on the beach with a girl, they’ll assume the worst.’ I could scarcely contain my eagerness to cross the Channel. As for Malvern’s contribution to sex education, the headmaster, a short, bald man known as ‘the Dome’, gathered the eighteen-year-old boys who were moving on to work or university and warned us that if we found ourselves in an intimate situation with a girl we should be very careful, because females found it ‘much harder to stop’ than we would. Eighteen was a bit late for a sex talk, and his caution made girls even more mysteriously attractive.

The Church of England had by then played an invaluable role in educating us about sex. The assistant chaplain, a former padre in the Royal Navy who spoke in a strange elongated drawl, had one day and with no warning broken off from exegesis of the Book of Zechariah to warn us that ‘If you get a boyyyyllll the size of a pea on your penis, you have ghonnoray-ah. If it is the size of a kidney beeeean, you have syphilis.’

More comforting was the sermon given by a visiting Canon of Coventry Cathedral. The cathedral had been flattened by German bombs during the war, and recently rebuilt to a visionary design by Basil Spence. The clergy liked to think that their pastoral and theological work was just as modern in idiom, and when the time came for the visiting Canon’s sermon he ascended the chancel steps in the school chapel and, instead of going to the pulpit or lectern, stood in plain view and opened his mouth. Already, six hundred boys had consigned the forthcoming fifteen minutes to the bottomless chasm wherein lay the endless hours spent listening to irrelevancies, freezing on sports pitches or attempting to keep step on some fatuous marching exercise.

‘Now boys,’ began the Canon, ‘I don’t know what you’ve been told about …’ he paused for moment ‘… masturbation.’ The rustling, fidgeting and whispering stopped at once. Suddenly, you could hear a pin drop.

We had probably been told we would grow out of it, he said. Well, he could tell us from personal experience that we would not. And secondly, and most importantly, there was nothing to be ashamed of – masturbation was a gift from God, and there to be enjoyed. We looked at each other in delighted astonishment. (Not so either the masters attending the service, nor the forty or fifty parents waiting to take their sons out to Sunday lunch. The Dome spent the rest of the morning receiving one after another of them in his study, as they complained that this was not the sort of filth for which they paid the school’s hefty fees.)

Chapel attendance was compulsory every day, but of all the many sermons delivered during my five years at the school, this was the only one of which I have the slightest recollection. After lights out that night the familiar rustlings began under the bedclothes. From the end of the dormitory came a voice: ‘For what Aubertin is about to receive, may the Lord make him truly grateful.’

According to the company’s advertising, Old Spice has ‘75 years of experience helping guys improve their mansmells with deodorant, antiperspirant and fragrances’. They seem to have forgotten the main advantage of their aftershave. It was the pong of choice for anyone who had taken up smoking.

Once one had finished fagging, it was time to begin with another sort of fags. By the mid-1960s the fact that cigarettes gave you cancer had been pretty well established, though the tobacco companies were doing their best to throw a great deal of dust into the air. Allowed the full run of newspaper and television advertising, they were quite successful in convincing addicts that a product which had turned a very rare cancer into a worldwide epidemic was doing them no harm at all. Some brands even claimed to be doing you good.

Both of my parents were among the many millions of smokers who preferred the blithe deceits of the tobacco firms – my mother’s favourite being ‘cork-filtered’ Craven A from a red packet with a black cat on the front, while my father smoked untipped Senior Service, which came in a white packet illustrated with a three-masted sailing ship, suggesting they were the very essence of a life on the ocean wave and carrying the slogan ‘The Perfection of Cigarette Luxury’. When, at the age of thirteen or so, I stole and smoked some, they tore the back out of my throat. The cigarettes that had been stolen by Neil Saunders, my friend living over the road, from his very exotic mother (she was rumoured to have been divorced) were altogether nicer. During school holidays we would take ourselves off to one of our falling-down outbuildings and stand in the cold, earnestly puffing through cocktail cigarettes in astonishingly coloured papers – black, pink or peppermint green. We thought we were rather cool.

Normal teenagers, whose school day ended in the middle of the afternoon, poured out of the school gates and lit up on the way home. At boarding school there was no such opportunity, so life was a series of escape and evasion manoeuvres which, with a little elaboration, could have been used to good effect in an SAS manual. Since the smoking spots tended to be passed on from one generation of boys to the next they must have become tediously familiar to every member of the staff common room, most of whom sensibly went out of their way to avoid going anywhere near them. Furtive pupils made a point of returning to school reeking of Old Spice and peppermints – two smells which, even after all these years, retain their ability to make me swing along the street trying to look as if I couldn’t possibly have been up to anything. The holidays were another matter. Free of the necessity to strike an attitude before one’s classmates, one only had to smoke when there was a pressing need, like a girl to whom one wanted to look nonchalant and sophisticated. Most of the time you could give your lungs a much-needed rest.

There seemed to be no shortage of holiday jobs to be picked up in order to raise the money for some absurd pair of shoes or a new record. Some of these jobs – for example the couple of weeks I spent as a fifteen-year-old hospital porter, or the two months as a builders’ labourer – positively demanded that one smoked. For the most part, a builders’ labourer mixes cement or carries bricks up and down ladders in a hod, so the bricklayer can lay them uninterruptedly (brickies were paid ‘on the rip’ – i.e. by the number of courses they got down in a day). But as far as I was concerned, the most demanding duties were brewing tea on an open brazier and running down to the bookies with the afternoon bets. This last task in particular required much smoking, as well as rather terrifying feats of memory about whether it was number six in the third at Kelso or number three in the sixth. Work as a hospital porter necessitated a similar familiarity with cigarettes during breaks in the porters’ duty room, but this led to meeting a pretty red-haired nurse whom I took on the 143 bus to the Essoldo cinema in Edgbaston. We were so keen on the back row of the stalls that she didn’t seem to mind sitting through the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night twice in a week. There was much furious smoking on the top deck of the bus on the way home.

Smoking at Malvern College was more problematic. However many mints one chewed or gallons of Old Spice one splashed on one’s face, there remained the question of where to store the numerous packets of fags that a serious habit required. It was rumoured that Rasmussen, a Swedish boy who came to spend a year at the school, had arrived with a tuckbox packed with cartons of cigarettes, bottles of vodka and a gross of condoms, and that the first thing you saw on lifting the lid was a revolver. About the only part of the story that seems plausible is that the contents of his tuckbox were known to the school authorities, since it was accepted as a fact of life that the boiler room in which the tuckboxes were stored was regularly inspected by Scribe, the house tutor, as he pursued his fervent crusade against tobacco.

One was bound to get caught sooner or later. Because the place was largely run by the prefect corps, most punishments were meted out by them. But beatings became progressively rarer as time passed, and the commonest form of punishment was to be ‘dropped lines’, which required you to attend the housemaster’s study, report that you had been sentenced to fifty or a hundred ‘lines’, and be given sheets of special crème-coloured foolscap paper on which the housemaster had signed his name in the top right-hand corner. The prefect then prescribed an essay subject on something like ‘Why no country can exist without a hierarchy’, or ‘Describe the inside of a ping-pong ball’.

Smoking, drinking and making night-time assignations with girls were more serious disciplinary matters, and were generally dealt with by housemasters themselves. I managed to be punished for all three. The carpeting for smoking began with the usual ‘Have you been smoking?’, an accusation I denied. ‘Well let me remind you,’ my housemaster replied, as he blew clouds of smoke from his pipe. ‘On Monday you had three cigarettes, on Tuesday you had two, and on Wednesday you had another two.’ I was toast, and although I had no evidence, I immediately concluded that the study patrols by Scribe, the House Tutor, had included monitoring my not-very-secret stash on a daily basis. The punishment was, if I recall, to be ‘gated’, or not allowed to leave the school grounds, for a few weeks. They soon passed.

Scribe was also the author of my downfall when it came to drinking. The school’s Officer Cadet Corps, which over the decades had produced thousands of soldiers, had been formally renamed the Combined Cadet Force, but was still known as ‘corps’. In the Royal Naval section Wednesday succeeded Wednesday in tying knots, building rope bridges, and occasional expeditions to try to sail decommissioned ‘whalers’ on a muddy stretch of the river Avon. On one of these afternoons I somehow managed to capsize not one but three dinghies while they were still moored to a jetty. By the time I was sixteen I had determined that I wasn’t a sailor at all, but a conscientious objector. I joined the Peace Pledge Union, swearing to renounce war and inviting two splendid old ladies who led the deeply unfashionable organisation to visit the school and take part in a debate on militarism. Some time after that I approached the headmaster and told him that I really could not reconcile Wednesday afternoons with my conscience. Being a wise man, he merely said that I should find something socially useful to do instead. I discovered a nearby school for what were then known as ‘mentally subnormal children’, and went along each Wednesday to help teach them to do things like tying their shoelaces. I rather enjoyed it.

The problem came a year or so later. Field Day was the one weekday each term when there were no lessons, and instead the entire school played soldiers. The special-needs school only wanted me for a few hours, which provided a perfect opportunity to meet my friend Stuart at the Blue Bell pub at lunchtime. Because Stuart was an American citizen at the school on an English-Speaking Union scholarship for a year, he was excused military service. The Blue Bell, like all pubs, was seriously out of bounds, but when the entire school was out on map-reading exercises in the hills, it seemed safe enough to risk a leisurely lunchtime drink. We cycled the couple of miles from school quickly, installed ourselves in the back bar and began our first pints of ale.

Well before we had reached the bottom of our glasses we looked through the hatch into the bar at the front of the pub. There, shiny pate gleaming, was Scribe. At that instant he turned to look through the hatch, fixed our eyes and expostulated ‘Hmm’ in a nasally theatrical fashion. For reasons I have never understood, at that point Stuart and I stood on our chairs, pulled open the casement window, climbed through it into the garden, ran to our bicycles and cycled off, as if it was possible that we hadn’t been seen.

I cannot recall what happened to Stuart, but I was rusticated – sent home – for the rest of the term. I begged my father not to make me go back to school next term, and when he asked what, precisely, I would do for a living, came up with some nonsense about ‘becoming a photographer’. Fortunately, no one took me at my word, for the family dog had better photographic skills. My father quickly killed the idea anyway, saying that I had to return for another year and sit an exam or two to improve my terrible A Level results (a B in English, a C in History and – how had this happened? – an E in Geography, of all things). Otherwise I’d be ‘leaving school under a cloud’, an expression usually used of young men who had attempted to seduce a master’s wife or to burn the place down. To a teenager a year seems an eternity, but back I went.

If you had asked me then whether I thought it possible that schools like this would survive into the twenty-first century, I should have answered with a resounding ‘No.’ I was with Bernard Shaw, who believed that the public schools of England should be ‘razed to the ground and their foundations sown with salt’. But that never happened. Instead, they not merely survive but flourish, and have somehow retained their charitable status. The schools stand foursquare and confident across the land, an ivy-clad rebuke to the notion that advancement in Britain is based purely on merit. The country has perhaps never been as class-bound as caricature likes to suggest. But for all the high-minded notions of ‘a classless society’, perhaps 7 per cent of children are still educated privately.

The essential thing to remember about these institutions is that whatever their pretensions, they are all first and foremost businesses, and no school will survive for long if the business is unstable. Though they are not necessarily the most academically rigorous, the public schools consider themselves an elite, and have overcome the Tom Brown’s Schooldays image problem by what some head teachers call ‘getting the mothers’ vote’ and appearing warm and caring: the improved comfort of the schools is the direct consequence of the increasing importance of the maternal role in families. But what is still striking about many of these schools is the assumptions they feel entitled to make. To take one very small example: of the fifty or so talks I have given to teenagers in the last ten years, only three have been at the invitation of state schools.* (#ulink_e4b12aca-6399-5ad8-b796-6627a815e998) I shared my schooldays with the children of doctors, lawyers and professors, but the fees at many of these schools are now becoming so astronomical that they are quite beyond the reach of the ordinary middle class. The empty desks are filled by the children of Chinese billionaires and Russian oligarchs. A high occupancy rate no doubt pleases the governors, but it is quite absurd to suggest that the schools do anything much for social cohesion.
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