James Delingpole

Thank God I don’t have that ghastly sense of entitlement that Eton instils

17 December 2011

I honestly didn’t realise I’d been to a ‘minor’ public school until my first term at Christ Church. Before that, I thought — as all of us did at my alma mater — that though of course there were lots of other public schools out there, Malvern could hold its head high with the very best of them. So coming up to Oxford was a bit of a shock. As far as the Etonians and Wyckhamists and Wets were concerned, my school was so obscure and worthless I might have attended a shabby comprehensive.

Among those who very much gave off this vibe was David Cameron. Dave was never aggressively snobbish but then Etonians are much subtler than that. They assert their superiority with tiny signifiers, like the way they talk about ‘school’ as if it has a capital S, and also with that weapons-grade charm. They’re so grand they don’t even look down on you, rather they feel awkward for you: ‘Such a pity, you poor dear chap, you didn’t have the education we did…’

Anyway, the other day I found myself back at Malvern for the first time in two decades and I felt instantly ashamed for ever having felt ashamed of it. God, what a stunning place! The Worcestershire Beacon looming dramatically above that classic Victorian public school gothic main building, and below it the first XI pitch (which of course I never graced, except when it became the finishing line for Malvern’s famously gruelling cross-country run, the Ledder). You take these things for granted when you’re there, but now I was seeing it anew, this time through the eyes of Girl, who knew instantly she wanted to come here more than she’d ever wanted anything in the world. Girl is right. Why did it take me till now to appreciate just how lucky I was?

On our tour of the school, I kept being assailed by Proustian flashbacks: the signed moon-landing photograph by Apollo astronaut Jim Irwin, who’d come to give the school lecture in my second year in 1980, and had rather unsettled me by declaring: ‘God walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon’; those prints by Ceri Richards whose degree of fame I was never sure of at the time and still am not now; the Gaunt study centre where I sat warding off hay fever in the summer of ’84 by the huge gothic window looking out onto the far sports fields next to the spy centre formerly known as the RSRE, reading Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid because it’s the kind of obscure book that gets Oxford interviewers really impressed.

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The older I get, the more stupid and self-defeating I realise it is to wish your life had been somehow different. (Though I’d still probably take the Winston Churchill gig.) For example, I know that if I’d bought that three-bedroomed flat just off Portobello Road for £120,000 in the early Nineties as I should have done, I would never have met my wife or had my kids.

And if I’d never gone to Malvern I would have missed out on so many of those essential experiences that make me me. Take cross-country running, which I doubt I would have ever taken up in one of those less aggressively sporty schools where you were left free to pursue your own interests. Sometimes it’s good to be forced out of your comfort zone: at Malvern, in my day at least, being Oxbridge material didn’t win you much credibility; but sporting prowess did, and since rugger, football and cricket clearly weren’t options I had to find an alternative where training and determination were more important than skill.

I still dream of the Ledder, the seven-and-half-mile run up one side of the Malvern Hills and down the other, taking in an especially boggy uphill stretch called Shit Alley. With my first stag hunt and that time we were lined up and thought we were going to be shot in Uganda, it’s perhaps the most intense experience I’ve ever had: ecstasy and purgatory rolled into one, the endorphins and the competitive buzz and the beauty of the Herefordshire/Worcestershire countryside blurring with the burning lungs and thumping heart and mud-clagged feet and gasping, gob-spattered mouth. Hell, it made me the man I am today.

As, indeed, did Malvern generally. Sure I might have had just as brilliant a time if I’d gone to Eton, but I fear I might have emerged subtly different in a way not necessarily to my advantage. Eton trains you to be a chameleon — you can be everything from prime minister to a Baltimore cop in The Wire — whereas I’m much more useful as an awkward bugger. And though I’m not saying Eton can’t do awkward buggers too (Shelley, Orwell), I think it might have encouraged in me a fatal complacency. If Eton has a flaw, it’s that it’s too perfect in every way: to have gone there is to spend the whole of the rest of your life feeling as if you have been cast out of paradise.

Cameron, no question, is a victim of this syndrome. The impression Etonians always gave at Oxford was that the college quads, however grand, were a pale imitation of the one Henry VI had built for them at School. I’ve no doubt that for Dave, poxy No. 10 Downing Street is even more of a comedown. The result is that disastrous sense of entitlement so many of Cameron’s kind have. Because he believes the job is his due, he feels no compulsion to strive to make himself worthy of it.

I dare say I have flaws of my own, but my former Etonian chum’s aren’t among them. I’m my own man, I’m happy in my skin, I always say exactly what I think and I’ve never had to betray my principles. Thank you Malvern. Thanks for everything.

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Show comments
  • Timac

    Nice article, James.

    My schools had a big impact on me too. I went to a Methodist Public School in the UK and a Liberal-fascist International School in the USA. Going to both and being told how to act and how to think from very different positions of authority made me question authority altogether. God knows what sort of arse I’d be if I had only gone to one of them. Either a provincial snob on the one hand or a tolerance and diversity bore on the other. Thankfully I’m neither

  • chipyarmourer

    About time you had such an epiphany James those of us who managed to go to a good rural comprehensive have always understood the inherent snobbery of most Etonians.
    To be honest they make us laugh at how actually useless they are. It may be good to instruct his Lordship Dave that it was oiks from the North that actually founded Oxford University or rather educated Monks from Durham it might humble him a little.
    He should also note it was never Etonians that built the wealth of Britain but nonconformist Industrialists the men that brought the cotton mills, the steam engine the railways and steel making.
    As for cross country runs my you were suckered we walked ours and popped off to have a cup of coffee at home before walking back to school. While our PE teachers lounged around smoking cigarettes in their office.
    However I was fortunate to have the second son of a Lord as our History teacher a decent man that inspired us all with his antics at some rather spectacular parties in his youth.

  • Anonymous

    Sir, I congratulate you for yet another brilliantly written column. Not only did you confront the fact that you were initially convinced that Malvern was merely a minor public school, you also succeeded in pinning the blame on your Etonian acquaintances rather than on your own insecurities. I was particularly impressed by your evidence supporting the Eton superiority complex: even I, a man who with several Etonian friends, fail to notice the subtle snobbery they apparently exude. Your refusal to accept the fact that Eton has since moved on, insisting instead on adhering to your own anachronistic perception of Eton, only adds to the poignancy of the piece. I simply cannot begin to imagine the courage it must have taken to write this piece expressing your regret at not having attended your ideal school. Bravo to you, sir.

  • Herbert Thornton

    Judging from the few I’ve met, James’ description of Etonians generally, and of Cameron in particular, is delightfully spot on.

    However, there people who outdo Old Etonians. They do it moreover in vastly greater numbers – and with equally good manners and even greater subtlety.

    Someone one described combined presence in Hong Kong of the British (many of them doubtless being Old Etonians) and the Chinese as a combination of the Imperturbable with the Celestial.

    The result was that Imperturbable deeply respected the Celestial. The Celestial on the other hand simply regarded that deep respect as part of its due. Now how’s that for effortless superiority?

  • Christopher Gadsden

    If I ever heard a man who wished he had gone to Eton, ths has to be him. Still obsessed, after all these years. .

  • Bill Corr

    As a former graduate-inmate of The 3-5 Club [Barrow-in-Furness] then Pennington Junior School, then Vickerstown County Primary School, then Merchant Taylors’ School in Crosby, then Barrow Boys’ Grammar School, then sundry other places too numerous to list here, I can assert without fear of contradiction that Lancaster University in the years 1968 to 1971 was the best place on the planet for guilt-free and happy promiscuous sex and cheery and unharmful use of recreational drugs.

    Plus we had more joyous coitus than that Clegg fellow, so there!

    [I recall one plumpish Japanese-American lady on the *Colorado State Junior Year Abroad Program* proclaiming “I want to f*ck every guy in this English university” and she certainly tried her very best but retired, unhurt, well before she reached her Century.

  • David Short

    It’s not the best of achievements to be a hack, even on national newspapers and magazines, any more. That’s why public schoolboys, even minor ones, have taken up the trade. There’s not enough money in it for those who have to make a proper living in London, and who can’t afford to be a hack because they need a proper job to pay rent and mortgage (Mum and Dad don’t live within a cosy distance of London paper offices). And of course you need to be intelligent and productive to work in the City now, not just the qualification of having gone to some public school, major or minor. Big Bang did for that. Ta, Maggie.

  • nick

    Silly article. He does’t seem to know other public schools, lesser than his own, which have every bit a sense of empowerment (Repton is one that comes instantly to mind) once described by a friend as third rate and overly self-important. This is just anti Cameron nonsence.

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