Pissed-off Toff

How can The Spectator get Eton so wrong?

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff is surprised that The Spectator, of all magazines, should run a piece about Eton that is so markedly off-centre.

It might not seem the best of ideas to pen a refutation of a prominent piece by the literary editor of The Spectator when one has one’s own books to be reviewed and when, normally, one would be expected to suck up to the said editor. But since the piece in question annoyed me, and since I’ve almost reached the stage at which I no longer much care about anything … well then, what the hell!

Entitled The Social Politics of Eton, the piece, written by Sam Leith, appeared in the 6 July edition of The Spectator, and the pretext for it was a recent statement made by Boris Johnson to the effect that the Tory party had to reach out to ‘oppidans’; or something like that. Here, clearly, was a reference to Eton, which is made up of a limited number of King’s Scholars (about 70 in my day in the late 1970s) living in College, and a far larger number of ‘oppidans’ (about 1,200 in my day) living in various houses dotted around the place. Even now I can’t quite work out what Boris meant. But that doesn’t matter. What matters, for the present purpose, is that it was the cue for Leith to have his say on Eton, where Boris was once head boy.

Almost straight away, I found myself scribbling mental objections in the margins. “At Eton,” writes Leith, “an oppidan is anyone who isn’t a scholar.” Well, not really. Because plenty of scholarship boys have parents who do not wish them to go into the hothouse of College, and who prefer that their sons should go to an ordinary house, with an ordinary mix of boys, in the ‘oppidum’ – or town – of Eton. Such scholarship boys placed in oppidan houses are referred to as OS, meaning ‘Oppidan Scholar.’ Furthermore, their parents pay the full fees. So while still being scholars, these boys are quite distinct from the descendants of the 70 ‘poor scholars’ envisaged by the school’s founder, King Henry VI. Then there are the Music Scholars, who lodge in ordinary houses, along with oppidans and Oppidan Scholars. All of which is vital if one is to understand the ‘social politics’ of Eton.

Later in the same paragraph, we read that at some stage after Eton was founded “the sharp-elbowed middle classes saw a good thing and wanted in on the act.” This induces a further fit of mental scribbling on my part. Yes, from some time in the eighteenth century the gentry realised that Eton was a good place to send their sons, to be educated among other boys of their sort, rather than alone at home by a provincial Thwackum. But it was strictly the landed gentry and the aristocracy who – as Leith puts it – “elbowed in” on the act. So why does he talk about the “middle classes”? They didn’t even exist back then.

Perhaps the answer here is that like David Cameron, Leith is too squeamish to use terms like ‘upper class’ and ‘aristocracy’ … and so resorts to ‘middle class’, despite the fact that in this context it is both mealy-mouthed and downright wrong. He then proceeds to inform us that before long Eton was “swamped” by these “freeloaders”. But they paid. Swamped the place might have been; but not – however you look at it – by Leith’s non-existent middle-class freeloaders.

As for the figures, Leith informs us that the worthy Kings’ Scholars are now outnumbered by dim oppidan “buggers” (humour is intended here) by about 25 to one. Really? In my day there were about 1,200 oppidans and 70 King’s Scholars. It can’t have changed much since then. That’s a ratio of 17-1, isn’t it? Not 25-1. Not, I concede, that it much matters. Sloppy maths, nevertheless.

The next paragraph is the most questionable. “To be a King’s Scholar,” writes Leith – and he was once one of them – “is to be an élite within an élite.” Here, I fear, he is talking his own book. In my day at any rate, College was a place quite apart from the rest of the school, a parallel universe, almost; and if the King’s Scholars formed an academic élite, it carried no kudos whatsoever with the oppidans, who, traditionally, were far superior in social terms to the founder’s ‘poor scholars’. As even Leith admits, “oppidans look down on [King’s Scholars] socially.”

As he also explains, King’s Scholars are commonly referred to, by oppidans, as ‘tugs’. What he doesn’t say – and why not, when this piece is billed as ‘social politics’? – is that ‘tug’ is a derogatory term. It might seem against my own interests for me to report it, but a while ago someone asked me whether I had been a ‘tug’. I knew instinctively that it was a social challenge, and I was glad to be able to reply that I had been an oppidan.

Of course, College in my day, and no doubt nowadays too, had its share of boys from the upper classes, even the aristocracy. I remember a certain Guy Philipps, now the 3rd Baron Milford, whose good looks much impressed my mother. There was a smooth character called Lawrence, whose father was a peer. And the one and only time I ever put my nose inside College, I had a bucket of cold water emptied over my head by the Earl of St Andrews, heir to HRH the Duke of Kent. But my point stands. College, when I was at Eton, was a place apart, a monkish refuge entirely lacking social prestige, regardless of the status of its individual members.

No. The real ‘élite within an élite’ at Eton is not College, as Leith claims. It is Pop, a largely self-selecting group of senior boys, founded in 1811, and which enjoys limitless and undisputed prestige. Just as the label of Old Etonian is attached to a man for the rest of his life, so – certainly among Old Etonians themselves – does the glory of having been in Pop, with its fabulous uniform marking out the wearer as a demi-god among mere mortals.

On this Pop front, Leith trips up again, though quite harmlessly. Pop, he tells us, is short for ‘popular’. No it isn’t. It is in fact short for ‘Popina’, which is the Latin word for ‘eatery’ or – in Eton parlance – tuck-shop. It is because the club used to meet in such a place that it took the name of ‘Pop’. Bearing in mind that right up until recent times Latin formed a large part of the standard diet of all Etonians, this makes perfect sense. I’ve also consulted my old copy of Smith’s Smaller Latin Dictionary, and there it is: “popina, ae, f. a cook-shop, eating-house.”

Let us quote the last paragraph in full:

“It should be noted that the Captain of School, Eton’s prime minister, is always a KS [King’s Scholar, aka Colleger, aka ‘tug’] and he’s always in Pop, and is therefore a great unifier and not to be trusted near drunk girls in taffeta.” 

By this stage, the itch of querulousness that I had felt only a few lines into this piece was unassuageable. So let us conclude … and leaving aside the nonsense about the Captain of School being a “great unifier”, it is admittedly true that he must be a KS and that he is always in Pop. 

But – and again Leith doesn’t tell us – there’s more to it than that. Because when the Head Master appoints his Captain of School, that boy becomes a member of Pop ex officio … so whereas the members of Pop on the whole elect anyone they want, they have to take the Head Master’s chosen boy, whether they like it or not. 

Perhaps in BoJo’s case he was in Pop already, as a freely elected member of it; which, in Eton terms, would be far more prestigious than being planted there ex officio. Both Boris and his old friend the Earl Spencer (a Popper in the same year) will know the answer. I don’t think I’ll bother them for it … but in the meantime, we should perhaps thank the literary editor of The Spectator for inadvertently raising this question of national importance. 

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