Pissed-off Toff

The battle for the soul of Eton

in Big Issues

As the headmaster of Eton publicly reveals himself to be a ‘woke’ tyrant, Pissed-off Toff fears for the direction in which the world’s most famous school is heading.

It was bad enough, from Eton’s point of view, that the housemaster Matthew Mowbray was found guilty of various sex-related offences involving boys under his charge and that he now faces five years in prison followed by a lifetime of disgrace.

By itself, that might have been written off as a regrettable episode in the style of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. If that had been all, the media would soon have turned their attention elsewhere in search of the ever more extravagant scare stories that are so largely responsible for destroying the very fabric of our lives. 

But now the headmaster of Eton steps in, throwing first a few branches on to the still-smouldering fire, and then whole cans of petrol. Because in the immediate aftermath of the Mowbray affair he sent, to every single Old Etonian, a letter whose preachy contents countless ‘old boys’ read with a mixture of disgust and disbelief. Worse still, he proceeded to sack a popular English beak on trumped-up grounds of ‘gross misconduct’, and in so doing created a cause célèbre that looks set to run and run. 

Put another way, first the headmaster of Eton reveals himself, to a limited audience, to be a sanctimonious prig … and then he reveals himself to the public at large to be a ‘woke’ tyrant intent on fundamentally changing the character of the most famous school in the world.

* * * * *

Let us look, first, at the letter that the headmaster – a certain Simon Henderson, nicknamed ‘Trendy Hendy’ by the boys at the school – sent to every OE in the aftermath of the Mowbray affair. Dated 27 November, it is marked ‘Private and Confidential – to Old Etonians only’. I have it here in front of me.

Quite how the headmaster imagines that a letter addressed to – what? – thirteen-odd thousand ‘old boys’ can be realistically marked ‘Private and Confidential’ is unclear. And if its contents were intended to remain ‘private’ within this large circle of well-connected schoolmates, they didn’t do so for long. Because on the very same day that the letter arrived as an attachment in my in-box, whole lines taken from it appeared on the BBC’s website. 

So either the letter was leaked straight away, extracts from it being quoted verbatim by the BBC. Or it is a PR document from which the headmaster quoted at will to the media. I suspect the latter. That, at any rate, is how it reads: a PR document of quite sickening piety. No wonder that within minutes of its being sent out, Old Etonians up and down the country were ringing each other, incredulous and furious in turn. One chap I know had no fewer than twelve telephone calls that day on this topic, and tells me that the epithets applied to the author of the letter were in all cases unprintable.

Now to the contents. After a useful summary of the charges on which Mowbray was found guilty, the headmaster climbs up into his pulpit, smooths out the creases in his cassock and clears his throat.

“I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary bravery and dignity shown by the victims in this case,” he intones. He thanks the Police for their “great sensitivity and professionalism” and says that he is “outraged at the way Mr Mowbray abused his position of trust and betrayed those in his care.” He offers his “unreserved apologies” and wrings his hands over “a palpable sense of betrayal, coupled with shock and deep regret.” 

Now well into his stride, ‘Trendy Hendy’ assures us that the school has “engaged specialist counselling […] to offer guidance and support to those boys and staff who might need it.” Furthermore, he has “commissioned an external review to consider what has happened” … an external review which will no doubt recommend any number of oppressive new ‘safeguards’ and regulations. When, after all, do highly-paid consultants say that everything’s fine as it is?

Lastly and worst of all: “Should you [an Old Etonian] wish to talk to someone at the school about this case, or about any other safeguarding questions or concerns that you might have, […] please do not hesitate to email [X], our Designated Safeguarding Lead.” Oh, and of course: “Please feel free to contact me directly.”

Should I wish to ‘talk’ to someone!? ‘Talk’ to a busy-body Designated Safeguarding Lead!? About what, pray? About how traumatised I am by a relatively minor affair that concerns me not one jot? Or perhaps about how I cannot now sleep at night because it has been revealed to me that some schoolmasters are attracted to pretty boys?

From Trendy Hendy’s beating of breast and gnashing of teeth, one might have thought that the school had uncovered an extended network of aggressively paedophile beaks who had been sodomising all and sundry over the last decade. Or that a whole busload of Etonians had been kidnapped, raped and tortured by terrorists, before having their limbs hacked off one by one. Whereas what we are looking at are merely the sad peccadillos of one pervy housemaster who, among other things, once pinched a boy’s bum.

The piety of it; the sanctimony; the utter lack of any sense of proportion; and – perhaps worst of all – the almost obscene degree of emotional fragility which Simon Henderson encourages and to which he pays fawning tribute … this puritanical address to Eton at large is as sinister as it is repulsive.

* * * * *

We now turn to the case of Will Knowland, the English Literature master whose sacking on charges of ‘gross misconduct’ has caused a furore. The story goes like this:

Knowland, who has been at the school for nine years, is a popular beak. For a series of online lectures called Perspectives, designed to broaden the minds of senior boys and introduce them to a variety of points of view, he produces a half-hour-long video which suggests, among other things, that men are men and women are women, that there are clear physical and psychological differences between them, that sex and gender are not ‘social constructs’ but are based in nature, and that the ultra-feminist view that women are good and men are bad is a little unfair.

To me, it seems a statement of the obvious. Or perhaps the sort of thing that Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychiatrist and bestselling author of 12 Rules for Life, might say in one of his popular on-line talks. But judge for yourself. Here is Knowland’s video, entitled The Patriarchy Paradox:

The Patriarchy Paradox

So contentious is it nowadays to state self-evident truths regarding anything to do with gender, that an un-named female member of staff at Eton complains about the video to the headmaster, who tells Knowland to take it off the school’s intranet before the boys have a chance to see it. Reluctantly, Knowland does as he is asked. 

However, he refuses to take it off his own YouTube channel, called Knowland Knows. This is a private operation which enables him to earn an extra buck or two as a freelance teacher in the holidays; money which, as father of a large family, he probably needs. Plus, with all the artwork and images and film clips embedded in it, the offending video has taken ages to make. It is part of Knowland’s stock-in-trade. Why on earth should the headmaster tell him that he can’t broadcast it on his own private channel?

So far, so clear, in terms of the story. But we now enter murkier waters. At some stage – it is unclear whether before or after Knowland refuses to take the video off his YouTube channel – the headmaster takes the unprecedented step of asking a barrister to give a view as to the legality or otherwise of The Patriarchy Paradox. We are not privy to the exact advice given to Eton, but the school has said that Knowland’s video could “very well breach a number of the school’s policies as well as the school’s legal and regulatory obligations” … the latter two being the Equalities Act 2010 and the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations. 

Still refusing to take his video off his own YouTube channel, Knowland is now sacked for ‘gross misconduct’; so not only does he lose his job, but he must also leave the tied house in the grounds of Eton that he occupies with his large family.

In another unprecedented development in this story, a number of Eton boys appeal to the provost and fellows, urging them to reinstate Knowland. “Mr Knowland is loved by all who have encountered him,” they write, in an open letter. “He is an obviously and thoroughly good man.”

But all to no avail. When Knowland appeals against his sacking, it us upheld by an internal panel at Eton chaired by the vice-provost. As Knowland comments on hearing the verdict, it was most unlikely that they would come to any other conclusion.

* * * * *

In the ensueing public hullabaloo, the debate focusses almost entirely on questions of free speech. I do not think that this is the main issue (re which, more later). But let us consider it nevertheless.

“Eton will never cancel debate,” said Lord Waldegrave, the provost of Eton, shortly after Knowland was sacked. This despite the fact that the cancellation of debate was the clear intention of the headmaster. And what about this, in a letter sent at the same time by the headmaster to all parents of boys at the school: “I believe in […] the importance of independent thinking and intellectual freedom,” he wrote. Really? Why, then, did he ‘cancel’ Knowland?

A little later, the headmaster sent yet another letter to parents, via email attachment (he has, presumably, long since given up doing what schoolmasters are meant to do, which is teach). “It has been suggested by some,” he wrote, “that intellectual freedom is somehow being compromised within Eton. It is not. This is such a rewarding place to work precisely because there is such plurality of thought amongst boys and staff.” Which, no doubt, is why he sacked a beak for voicing an opinion with which he felt uncomfortable … namely, the troublesome but nevertheless widely held view that men and women are different.

While proclaiming their respect for freedom of debate with a vigour matched only their mendaciousness, the headmaster and the provost, Lord Waldegrave, insist that Knowland’s dismissal was “not a matter of free speech.” It was, rather, a matter of “internal discipline,” they claim.

Here, for the first time, I agree with them. This is not principally about free speech. It is about what a headmaster can and cannot tell a member of staff to do. It is, surely, fair enough for the headmaster to say to Knowland that he really doesn’t like his video and let’s please not show it to the boys. But it is not fair for any headmaster to tell a member of staff what opinions he can or cannot express outside the workplace … in this case, on Knowland’s YouTube channel. And for the headmaster to sack a junior master for ‘gross misconduct’ on the basis that he insists on his right to express his own perfectly legitimate views as a private individual (remember: Knowland had already agreed to the cancellation of his video within the orbit of the school) … this is quite wrong.

Gross misconduct is surely something other than this. If, for example, a coked-up Mr Knowland had run stark naked down Eton High Street, that might qualify. Or if, whisky bottle in hand, he had barged into the headmaster’s study and laid into him thus: “You know what you are, Headmaster, don’t you? You’re a prissy little cunt! And now I’m going to take out my big fat cock, the one that I fuck my wife senseless with every night, you monkish prat, and I’m gonna wave it in your priggish little face, and then piss on your desk!!” … that, too, might be construed as ‘gross misconduct’.

So we have concerns over free speech, which, I argue, are not germane. We have a trumped-up charge of ‘gross misconduct’. And to back it up, we have a barrister’s legal opinion that Knowland’s video might be in breach of this law and that regulation. Note, however, that this opinion is couched in caveats. It is clear that with the caution of his profession, the barrister did not say that the video was in breach of the law. He said that it might be. Which is almost meaningless.

More importantly still, the barrister’s opinion as to the legality or otherwise of Knowland’s video is an irrelevance. Because as soon as this video was taken off Eton’s intranet, it was – surely? – outside the school’s orbit and therefore of no legitimate concern to the headmaster.

Do the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations apply to a private YouTube channel? I don’t think so. Does the Equalities Act 2010 apply to it? Surely not, since the said Act is concerned with relations between employer and employee in the workplace. And even if these laws and regulations do – or might – apply to Knowland’s private YouTube channel, that is no concern of Eton College. It is a matter between Knowland and the Crown Prosecution. So the whole legal narrative instigated by the headmaster is a red herring.

* * * * *

No. The real reason, I speculate, for the headmaster’s extraordinary decision to take legal advice from an expensive barrister and to subsequently sack Mr Knowland, is that he just doesn’t like him. Knowland is popular, annoyingly so. He’s evidently virile in an old-fashioned way. He has an attractive wife and five healthy children. He’s a weight-lifter who would be a match for Sylvester Stallone. As a man, he is everything that ‘Trendy Hendy’ is not.

More generally, he is not ‘woke’; whereas the headmaster of Eton is the very incarnation of ‘woke’. At this all-male school, he has, in revolutionary manner, appointed a female deputy – or ‘lower master’, in Eton parlance. At this all-male institution, he has also appointed a so-called ‘director of inclusion’ who has stated that she would like to see the Black Lives Matter flag flying over the entrance to School Yard. Earlier this year, various days were set aside on which the boys were asked to think about what it would be like to have a ‘protected’ characteristic. So there was Gay Day, Transgender Day, etc etc. Furthermore (and I now quote from the open letter sent by the boys to the provost and fellows), “anything that can be deemed ‘hostile’ by any single member of one of the school’s designated minority groups will be censored [by the headmaster].”

Like many other members of staff, Knowland doubtless has little time for this. And the headmaster knows it. So he rings a barrister and the conversation proceeds as follows:

Headmaster: There’s this beak I really hate who’s in favour of all sorts of toxic things like masculinity. Now he wants to pollute the boys’ minds with a problematic video saying men are men and women are women. That might be illegal, don’t you think? 

Barrister: Well, I suppose it might be. Why not, indeed? I’ll look into it and get back to you.

And as the barrister puts down the phone, he smiles at the prospect of earning another fat fee for telling a needy client what he wants to hear. At the same time as hedging his bets, of course.

* * * * *

This very public battle is not about free speech or about an unfair sacking … important those these matters are. On a personal level, it is a conflict between a prissy little puritan and a virile cavalier. And on a higher level, it is a battle for the soul of Eton.

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