The public (i.e. private) schools of Great Britain are not so full of toffs these days. Britain’s democracy since the two world wars has led to a caste system that is never mentioned, but still exists. The great, historic, expensive public schools used to be represented at an archaic tribal gathering called ‘The Headmasters’ Conference’. Grave middle-aged gentlemen, some with a paunch, would debate grave issues such as school meals, the uselessness of the Classics , the need for more mathematics, how finance could be raised to build a bigger gym and the terrible cost of school blazers at Gorringes.
Every great school had its eccentricities, modes of speech, and distastes: at Winchester your bicycle was call a ‘grid’; at Eton you spent your cash at a ‘sock shop’, not a ‘tuck shop’; Rugby boys dismissed Wellington boys as trainee troops because the latter was reportedly designed for Army boys; Pangbourne boys (Merchant Navy) disapproved of Dartmouth boys (Royal Navy) and placed them in the ‘rum, bum and the lash’ category. Harrovians claimed W.S. Churchill as Britain’s greatest prime minister; Etonians gleefully played the Gladstone card. Eton and Westminster produced our present joint prime ministers – Cameron and Clegg. Sherborne boys used to say of Lancing “that’s somewhere near the coast, isn’t it?” Above all, floating serenly beyond cloud level, were the great Roman Catholic establishments of Ampleforth, Downside, Stonyhurst, Beaumont and the Oratory. They always claimed a superior celestial education, and played better football at the Rugby Sevens. But then the ‘century of the Common Man’ intervened.
These days, if your parents sweated and saved, cheated and slaved to send a son to Eton or Harrow, the first thing he does when he leaves school is to adopt a proletarian accent and lose the drawl associated with those two institutions. He will insist to his impoverished parents that he will ‘never get a job’ if he speaks Etonian or Harrovian. Worse, if he is a Wykehamist (Winchester, from William of Wykeham, founder). The only time (in 2012) you will hear your son speaking as he did at school is when he in the company of other Etonians or Harrovians, and then – probably not. The one thing he is determined not to do is to sound like his father.
Today not even the famous old Papist institutions can claim superiority, because the Catholic Church itself has been helped down the drain by its own recent popes, with their Vatican Councils and insistence on no Latin, ritual or incense. We confess that the Church of England, too, has vanished entirely. Its archbishops, bishops and deans regularly claim to be honest to God, if only they could bring themselves to believe in Him. A recent archbishop of York said in a sermon that he had ‘serious doubts about his Faith’. Such thoughtful leadership has had the inevitable reaction. Enter an Anglican Communion church now at Matins and you will find two very old ladies and a scornful passing cat in a place of worship designed for a thousand.
So why do British hard-working parents make such tremendous financial sacrifices to send their children to a ‘great public school’? Probably because they are still there, have great names, are packed with the offspring of Russian oligarchs, American oilmen, Persians satraps etc., to whom finding thirty thousand a year to pay the fees is not an issue.
The distaste public schoolboys at different schools feel for each other is still strong, and growing. The scorn felt by boys for their own school is there too. The other day I heard an Old Etonian say, when asked where he had been at school, “Oh I went to a dump in a marsh near Slough.” He was attending a job interview at the time. He could at least have said ‘Windsor’.