A few miles down the road from Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, lies Britain's most famous school. Eton College, a boys' boarding school in the town of Windsor on the western edge of London, has captured the British imagination in films, books and TV for decades. Why should this be?
More like this:
- The world's most misunderstood novel
- Why we are living in 'Gothic times'
- The man who wrote the most perfect sentences
Is it because Eton is the crucible for generations of political leaders, with 20 of Britain's 55 prime ministers educated there, including the first, Robert Walpole, and the latest, Boris Johnson? This alone gives it a level of fame that is self-perpetuating. Or is it the school's long history (it was founded almost 600 years ago), the price of an education there (£42,500 or $58,000 a year), its traditions or even its uniform, for which top hats were worn as recently as the 1960s and tail-coats still are?
Generations of Britain's leaders – including the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson – attended the prestigious school (Credit: Getty)
These elements encourage mythologising and a sense of the school as a world apart, a fictional fantasy of high education passed down generations of families whose wealth, as old Etonian writer James Wood put it, "stretched so far back, the origin of their prosperity was invisible." Does the reality match the stories told – and the books written – about the school that rules Britain?
Well, not everyone who attended Eton fits the mould. This month sees the publication of One of Them: An Eton College Memoir by writer, podcaster and musician Musa Okwonga. When he attended Eton from 1993 to 1998, Okwonga was one of only a handful of black boys at the school. The book is his contribution to an "exploration of race and class" in Britain, on the grounds that "to understand where we are going as a society, we need to understand how we got here."
I thought, this is the kind of education that takes you anywhere – Musa Okwonga
A striking fact in One of Them is that Okwonga was not sent to Eton by a family hungry to give him a leg up: instead, he urged his mother to send him after seeing it on a TV documentary and visiting on a school trip. "I was aware," he tells BBC Culture, "of what education gets you, wherever you go, even if you leave a country." His family were middle-class refugees from Uganda and "I thought, this is the kind of education that takes you anywhere." Also: he shares his birthday (11 October) with the school's founding date. "It was meant to be!" he says.
Okwonga brought an Etonian level of ambition with him: his memoir shows how he took his costly education seriously, calculating that it was costing his mother £20 ($27.50) a day for him to be there. "I basically ran or joined every single society I could," he says. "And my day was just full of bullet points, a checklist of things I had to do that day to earn it." One startling feature of this work ethic was that he only went home twice in his five years at Eton, despite living "closer to home than anyone else at school."
Musa Okwonga's Eton memoir One of Them recalls his time as one of only a handful of black pupils at the school in the 1990s (Credit: Michel Rosenberg)
The determination Okwonga showed is a quality we see in the old boys who have climbed the greasy pole of politics: "No one here ever tells us out loud that Etonians are natural leaders, " he writes. "That's what the architecture is for." We associate Eton with wealth, so it's the rich and famous alumni who get our attention. But the stories that add flavour to the facts are often from fiction; though given the literary world's scepticism of material success (failure is more interesting), a novelist's portrayal of Eton boys can be unflattering – or worse.
'Villains and fools'
Take that amiable idiot Bertie Wooster, whose status as an old Etonian is classic PG Wodehouse: affectionate rather than cutting. Bertie attended Eton with fellow fops Marmaduke "Chuffy" Chuffnell and G D'Arcy Cheesewright, though even in Wodehouse-world the school had its standards. Asked in Right Ho, Jeeves whether he was at school with Tuppy Glossop, ineffectual denizen of the Drones Club, Bertie replied, "Good heavens, no. We wouldn't have a fellow like that at Eton."
A more directly villainous old boy is Peter Pan's arch-nemesis Captain Hook (who, incidentally, went from Eton to Balliol College, Oxford, a path followed by Boris Johnson). His education is revealed late in JM Barrie's play when Hook jumps toward death-by-crocodile, murmuring "Floreat Etona" ("May Eton flourish"), the school motto. Hook was, according to a Provost at the school in 1927, "a great Etonian but not a good one", and in a speech given at Eton that year, Barrie wryly noted that "perhaps it was just that at Oxford he fell among bad companions – Harrovians."
Captain Hook mutters the school motto "Floreat Etona" as he jumps to his death (Credit: Getty)
Back in the real life of Eton, villains and fools in Okwonga's memoir are rare: One of Them is a nuanced portrait of his school years, and although "there were no more than about four black boys out of 1,216 students, the entire time I was there", Okwonga experienced "not too much" overt racism. On one level this looks like an advance on 30 years earlier, when Nigerian author Dillibe Onyeama suffered racist taunts as the first black student to complete studies at the school, which he reported in his 1972 memoir. (Writing about these attacks got Onyeama banned from returning to Eton until recently.)
The racism Okwonga experienced was secondary, but no less insidious for that. One boy "joked" about his great-grandfather, a slave-driver, owning Africans; another told him, later, "you have no idea what was being said behind your back about black people." "That was devastating," he says now, because "I was just someone who was an exception to the rule for a lot of people there." Worst were the friends who let him down: one "swatted aside" his concerns about feeling exposed and visible at Eton; this friend's father thought Okwonga was "an asset, like a spy, put there by the Ugandan government. It was so bizarre to him that a middle-class black boy could go to Eton."
You learn pretty quickly not to express what you’re feeling, and that attribute stays with you – Musa Okwonga
After Onyeama's book and before Okwonga's, the most prominent memoir of Eton was Stand Before Your God (1993), by the novelist Paul Watkins, the author of 18 books including the Inspector Pekkala series written under the name Sam Eastland. His memoir is a funny and dramatic account of the experiences of a young American trying to come to grips with a new life in a new country, after being dropped off by his parents at boarding school when "I swear, I thought I was going to a party." That the book is still in print almost 30 years after publication shows the continued appetite for stories about Eton.
Watkins, whose skin colour fitted in but who still found that others "slotted me into a file that said Foreigner", had been signed up for the school at the age of six months. He writes that "you had to have a coldness in yourself" to avoid being hurt. Okwonga agrees: in One of Them he calls it "the mask". This, he tells BBC Culture, means "the reality of being at a boarding school is you can't afford to argue with people you need to live with for five years. "So you develop this thing where you learn not to have that feud. You learn pretty quickly not to express what you’re feeling, and that attribute stays with you."
A national totem
Okwonga's "mask" – Watkins's "coldness" – is one thing that many old Etonians can agree on. Actor Damian Lewis said in 2016: "You go through something which, at that age, defines you and your ability to cope. There's a sudden lack of intimacy with a parent, and your ability to get through that defines you emotionally for the rest of your life." His belief that Eton enables pupils to "compartmentalise their emotional life so successfully that they can go straight to the top" may explain that extraordinary proportion of our political leaders who went there.
It's hard to sum up a place like Eton without offending someone. That alone speaks to the power it holds over us – Paul Watkins
But like other totems of national discussion, Eton fits whatever your preconceptions desire: a fantasy of grandeur, or the itch of resentment against unearned privilege. What does it actually tell us about Britain? "The problem," Paul Watkins tells BBC Culture, "is when you go to Eton, everything you do becomes a social commentary. It's hard to sum up a place like Eton without offending someone. That alone speaks to the power it holds over us." Most of all, for him, it represents "England's fascination with itself."
For Musa Okwonga, what Eton tells us about Britain is "the lack of scrutiny you get if you're a certain type of person." He refers to the busts of old Etonian prime ministers in one room of the school and the risk of "revering power without context." It also speaks to what he calls "the funnel effect", where people who are "interpersonally really nice, really friendly… can nonetheless go down a particular funnel where there's a lack of empathy for people who haven't had your lived experience." This sounds like another aspect of the emotional distance mentioned above.
And if ruthless coldness is a yardstick, what better fictional representative could Eton have than the greatest spy of the 20th Century, James Bond? Our knowledge of Bond's time at the school is limited, but Ian Fleming's novel You Only Live Twice includes an obituary written by spymaster M when Bond is presumed dead: "It must be admitted that his career at Eton was brief and undistinguished and, after only two halves [terms], as a result […] of some alleged trouble with one of the boys' maids, his aunt was requested to remove him."
The novelist Ian Fleming gave James Bond a "brief and undistinguished" spell at the college (Credit: Getty)
Bond's creator's time at Eton was longer but no more distinguished. Ian Fleming took the traditional route to the school – he was the son of an old Etonian army major – but failed to perform academically and was removed from the school by his mother before he could fail to graduate. He did at least kick off his writing career at Eton, publishing his first story in the school magazine The Wyvern. Fleming also named the Bond villain Blofeld after an old classmate, but his feelings for Eton are best encapsulated in the James Bond All Purpose Grand Challenge Trophy Vase he presented to the Old Etonian Golfing Society – which was in fact a chamber pot.
Fleming isn't the only writer to have a complicated relationship with the school. George Orwell, who attended on a scholarship and whose old school tie didn't quite fit such a man of the people, later disdained Eton, saying that although he was "relatively happy" at the school, he "did no work there and learned very little". In his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn, he wrote that "probably the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there. One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three-quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class." The school, undeterred, maintains the Orwell Award in his name, offering fully funded places "to talented boys whose life opportunities have been limited."
'A place of extremes'
Even for writers who didn't attend Eton, it has provided inspiration. John le Carré taught there for a year and described it as "a place of extremes" where "the English upper class can be seen at their best and worst. The good pupils are often brilliant […] and take you to the limits of your knowledge. The worst pupils," he added, "provide a unique insight into the criminal mind." These were "riches" for a novelist, and le Carré used Eton as inspiration for the fictional school Carne in his novel A Murder of Quality.
Or take the case of Evelyn Waugh, the envious outside chronicler of the upper class, who probably wished he'd gone to Eton instead of the humbler Lancing College. And in a typical act of one-up-manship, he sent his character Sebastian Flyte there in his most nostalgic novel Brideshead Revisited. "Thank God I went to Eton," sighs Sebastian during an obscure philosophical argument between family and friends. Sebastian, significantly, starts the book as the epitome of glamour but undergoes a decline as the story proceeds. (Waugh's mixed feelings about Eton may also have been coloured by the fact that his first wife, also called Evelyn, had an affair with an old Etonian.)
In his novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh sent the character Sebastian Flyte to Eton (Credit: Alamy)
As this parade of writers suggests, Eton has been a hothouse for literary development. Like Fleming and Orwell, Paul Watkins began writing at Eton, and he writes in Stand Before Your God that he tied a pencil to his bed frame so he could scribble ideas on the wall when he woke at night. He wrote the first two drafts of his debut novel Night Over Day Over Night at Eton, when he was 16: "The Eton library has the original draft, which I wrote by hand," he says.
What did Eton teach him? "The nobility in the pursuit of a goal," he tells BBC Culture, "not just the goal itself. When I got out into the world, nobody cared that I was writing books until those books got published." The most valuable lesson Eton taught him "was to have the courage to pursue what I felt I was built to do, and not just what others wanted me to do."
For Okwonga, it was a sense of meeting society's expectations – but also his own – from such a privileged education. "I knew it was an opportunity that so few black people get. And I think I've carried that my entire career, this sense of, 'I have to achieve something, I have to make my time worth it.'"
"And actually," he continues, "someone wrote to me, a friend who lives in the US. She said, 'you haven't wasted your talent'. Which is a very powerful thing to be told, because you go to a place like that, which is such a privilege, and you feel that keenly, every week you're there. You go out into the world, going: 'I've got to do something with this'."
Love books? Join BBC Culture Book Club on Facebook, a community for literature fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.