The Enigma of Kidson

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff reviews The Enigma of Kidson by Jamie Blackett.

This is a book that I found impossible to put down. I read it, if not in one sitting, then so voraciously that I gave myself no time to savour it; and so started all over again.

In 1965, at the relatively advanced age of 35, Michael Kidson went to Eton as a history beak, and the subject of this portrait is not just a schoolmaster who became a legend in his own lifetime, but also an era that has passed for ever, and many aspects of which – the beatings in particular – would now be not just taboo, but downright illegal.

The persona he projected to boys and beaks alike was that of an irate eccentric in the cavalier mould, and his props were perfectly tailored suits and an intermittently obedient springer spaniel.

“Come here, Sir! Come here!!” he would shout at this hound as it darted out across the roads of Eton, causing lorry drivers to swear obscenities as their vehicles screeched to a halt.

His lessons were theatrical performances, honed and refined over the years. In particular, he rejoiced in getting the boys’ names wrong, so that a boy called Cook (say) would inevitably be called Baker, and vice versa. For Jamie Sainsbury, of supermarket fame, the name he chose was ‘Scaramanga’ – surely because there was so very little of the James Bond baddie in this charming Etonian, who later became a friend of mine at Oxford.

To a boy from Wales when handing back an essay (and Kidson’s acerbic comments during the handing-back of written work were always eagerly awaited): “I make every allowance for your nationality, but this is really not good enough.”

Similarly, to a boy from Scotland: “Just what one might expect from a Hebridean cave-dweller.”

To any boy who failed to correctly answer a question fired off by Kidson: “Every apothecary’s assistant knows the answer to that.” That was a mild ticking-off. At boys who really displeased him, he was in the habit of throwing half a croquet ball, kept for that purpose on his desk atop its Victorian dias.

He was a schoolmaster of the old school, therefore, and his was an old-fashioned narrative history, in which men, not abstract historical forces, shaped events. “They were giants in those days,” he used to assert, surveying the pygmies in front of him; and this became one of his famous catch-phrases, much imitated by the boys, as were numerous other kidsonisms.

It is difficult not to conclude, as one anecdote follows another, that Eton was made for Kidson, just as Kidson was made for Eton. And yet, as the title of this book suggests, for all the tailor-made clothes and the vague hints at grand relatives in Scotland, there was a mystery about him. Where, in fact, did he come from? No-one really knew; and Jamie Blackett unearths the answers.

Kidson was born in 1929, to parents whose circumstances might at best be described as shabby-genteel, and which were already in steep decline. Although his father had served as an officer in the First World War, he was a ne’er-do-well who ended up in prison in 1931 and whose wife, to whom he had been unfaithful, left him shortly afterwards, disappearing without trace.

The young Kidson was sent away to be brought up by his paternal grandparents in Shropshire, where his grandfather was a retired vicar. But in 1941, when this arrangement was no longer viable, and after his father had died, the boy was sent to an orphanage in Wolverhampton, where he received an education that was good, if harsh.

There followed two years of National Service in the ranks of the Royal Artillery. Then, after a false start at Oxford, he graduated from Cambridge in 1956 with a 2:2 in History, and after two other false starts career-wise, he spent seven years teaching at Papplewick, a prep school in Berkshire. Finally in 1965, and in a development representing an elevation that was as sudden as it was miraculous, he started at Eton as a history beak.

Although the author does not say so outright, it seems clear that deep-seated concerns over his social status were central to Kidson’s psyche, and the key to understanding him. Think: well into his thirties, he is stuck in a second-rate preparatory school, not quite a gentleman and not quite not a gentleman, and intensely aware of his own ambiguous social background. And one morning he wakes up as a member of staff at the grandest and most famous public school in the world. Here, at last, is the stage on which he can play a role that is to his liking, the early years of downward mobility and abandonment banished from memory, the days in the ranks swept firmly under the carpet.

But if there were some at Eton who didn’t quite ‘get’ him, who whispered inconvenient questions about his past, who muttered disparagingly about his undistinguished 2:2, and who even suggested that he was a bit of a fraud, there were countless others, as this book demonstrates, who adored him.

Behind the aloof and irate exterior, he was, to an unusual degree in schoolmasters, on the boys’ side. Once, finding himself standing beside one of his pupils at the races during termtime (strictly out of bounds to Etonians), and unable to ignore the boy, Kidson turned to him and said “I believe I teach history to your twin brother.” And that was an end to the matter. It is the sort of thing that makes a beak’s reputation.

Not surprisingly, when the time came for each boy to choose a ‘Modern Tutor’ (a beak who would supervise his career in the later years), Kidson was in huge demand; a fact that must have rankled with the less popular beaks. And at ‘Private Business’, where groups of these pupils came to see him for informal sessions in his flat on the High Street, the normal Eton conventions were happily ignored.

“Pour yourself a whisky and soda, dear boy, while I finish this letter,” was a familiar refrain. Nor was it unheard of for Kidson to direct a tutorial while he was lying in the bath with the bathroom door left ajar.

This is the stuff of which myths are made; and which would result in instant dismissal from any school in our own puritanical and politically-correct age. Just as the Eton that I knew in the mid to late 1970s has disappeared for ever, so Kidson would not be possible nowadays; and although the school portrayed in this book is the Eton of little over one generation ago, it seems light-years away.

By the time Kidson retired in 1994, he had accumulated a list of former pupils that reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary Britain: Nat Rothschild, David Cameron, Johnny Boden, the Earl Spencer, Justin Welby, Jacob Rees-Mogg and countless others whose names occupy several pages at the back of the book.

Perhaps the most moving passage is a description of the 80th birthday dinner given for him at White’s by his old pupils. Kidson was so overcome with emotion that he was unable to give voice to the words he had in mind, and had to sit down, his face wet with tears. His former charges, similarly moved, started banging the table in his honour. How well one can imagine it, with the shouted crescendo of “Kidson! Kidson!! Kidson!!!”

They don’t make them like that any more.

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