It’s that time of the year when the establishment takes a moment to reflect on the excellence of establishment, congratulates itself on its continued existence, and bestows honours on its head prefects. An apt time, then, to share Adam Ramsay’s Autumn 2013 article, and consider how the establishment becomes established in the first place…
Upper Class Solidarity by Adam Ramsay
To understand the British public school system, or certainly, the part of it in which I spent my teenage years, it is crucial to get your head around three things.
The first is that no pupil I can think of left my school fat. The second is that it was only when I arrived at university that I realised I am not short. The third is that I know a pair of twins who, when they left, had the school’s emblem tattooed onto their backsides.
How these things happen is not complex.
Every afternoon we played sport. I say “played”. It was, particularly in the autumnal ‘Michaelmas’ term, significantly more brutal than that. To warm up before rugby, we would be made to sprint lengths of the pitch until, sometimes, a less-fit child vomited. We would lie in the mud with our feet in the air until our stomachs screamed in agony, and, gradually, formed themselves into neat rows of muscle. And then, come rain or hail or ice or snow, we would hurl our ball and bodies at each other.
When we’d finished, we’d limp back to our various houses, boil a vat of spaghetti, add pesto, and sit with our peers and a loaf of bread. Using the sliced white to grab, we would swallow handful after handful of oily, salty pasta. After this snack, we would head to the grand dining hall and cram in more carbs.
Every waking moment was filled. I was in the choir, the orchestra, the concert band and the pipe band. There was debating, a newsletter, drama. In the summer (‘Trinity’) term, I’d spend Tuesday afternoons climbing and Thursday afternoons kayaking. I learnt to fence and, at Wednesday CCF, to salute, march in formation, and to strip, clean and rebuild a rifle in under 30 seconds.
Every day but Saturday, we had chapel. The whole school would congregate, be preached to, pray together, and sing together. My housemaster was choirmaster and organist. Even for a hardened atheist the effect he conducted, in the magnificent chapel, was majestic and moving. Every community should come together, each morning, and sing.
In the evening, it was ‘prep’ (homework) followed by TV. In order to stray beyond the ‘front quad’ after these hours, you needed a ‘docket’ (permission slip). Every move, every moment, could be accounted for
Younger pupils slept in ‘cubes’, with flimsy walls about 8ft high allocating each person’s portion of an otherwise shared dormitory. 6th formers had their own rooms, with a desk and spring-laden bed. Each corridor was governed by a ‘beak’. At 17, I was responsible for 25 of my peers – for ensuring that they were OK, were quiet during ‘prep’, and, most importantly, were in bed on time.
These houses, along with a few of the classrooms, formed the main school buildings – a front and a back quad mimicking those of an Oxford college. Every 15 minutes, all night long, the bells of the clock tower echoed around the impressive buildings. After five years, they became a nighttime friend.
Other school facilities varied – on the one hand, music was taught in one of Basil Spence’s finest. On the other, my maths classes were in portacabins.
The final thing to consider is the very fact of boarding. I haven’t lived with my parents since I was 13. Some left home at eight or nine. If you suspect that this is likely to lead to insecurity then institutionalisation, you’d be right.
There was no beating – my school days weren’t those of Tom Brown. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t scars. If posh people seem not to be rooted, it’s because we are untimely ripped from our parents’ home.
The process forces you to grow up fast and, I suspect, incompletely. You become tough, but bad at feeling or expressing a healthy range of emotions. Of course, this doesn’t prevent future success. As Jimmy Reid said “anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else.”
The sport, the language, the dislocation, the lumpy beds, the chapel: these may sound odd, but they are typical for a British public school. I describe them to make a point. Ask most people to recount their school days and you would imagine, alongside friends, that they would talk about lessons. But this would miss the point of Britain’s public school system.
The classes were, of course, good. They were small, and the teachers were effective. They often seemed to be chosen for their skill in coaching us for rugby and tick-box tests rather than in inspiring questioning minds; as exam crammers, they delivered – and the odd one strained at the curricular leash. But it is not because you want your child to get top grades that you send them to live for five years at a British public school. There are much easier and cheaper ways to achieve that.
There is a bizarre belief held by many that success in Britain correlates to intelligence and hard work. This is a very middle class concept. What the upper classes understand is that success stems from two things: community and the appearance of confidence. And they are the purpose of public school.
So, all that sport, the diet, the uncomfortable beds, they are all part of a process. They ensure that no one is fat, and that everyone reaches the maximum of their genetically permitted height – that everyone appears healthy, fit.
But more importantly, they are about team building. Children are ripped from their parental home. Gradually their school class becomes a surrogate family, the concomitant social class extended family. To shout “Stockholm syndrome” would be extreme, but the psychological effect is surely similar.
Each school – like many families – has its own words: ‘docket’, ‘prep’, ‘Coll’, ‘beak’. The more prominent English schools even have their own sports – the Eton Wall Game, Winchester Fives and, well, Rugby Football.
Whilst the ruling elite might preach rugged individualism, we are brought up to sing together every morning, to stand on the rugby pitch together every afternoon, and, after leaving, to go away together and run a now vanished empire.
The aim is simple: to build solidarity. Whilst there are many reasons that the British ruling class is so imperially successful, this process of bonding is surely one of them. The middle classes are taught to believe that they will succeed through individual gumption. The upper class is built on the knowledge that this is nonsense.
And who were we taught to stand against? Anyone who has met me knows that, despite being Scottish, I have what some call an English accent. I suppose I’d argue it’s better described as posh. If you didn’t speak like this at my school, you’d be bullied – called a ‘scoit’. The teachers complained, but the culture remained.
The British public school system is best understood not by the brutality of Tom Brown nor by the excitement of Harry Potter. It is best understood as the root of the British elite. Each school has its own flavour. But they all play a similar function: they build ruling class solidarity. And at that, they are exceptional. Here is a verse from the Eton Boating Song. Next time you see a photograph of the government front bench, remember these lines.
Rugby may be more clever,
Harrow may make more row,
But we’ll row for ever,
Steady from stroke to bow,
And nothing in life shall sever
The chain that is round us now,
And nothing in life shall sever
The chain that is round us now.
Adam Ramsay is activism and events manager at People & Planet. He also co-edits Bright Green and is an active member of the Green Party.
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