I have my doubts about my old school – who doesn’t? – and these are not diminishing as Etonians come more into political prominence than they have for a couple of generations. It’s all very well to talk about the 18 prime ministers the school has nurtured but how about the spies, the conmen and the crooks? This is the alma mater not just of Wellington, Gladstone and Salisbury but also of Guy Burgess, Simon Mann and Darius Guppy
What troubles me is the tendency to both self-aggrandisement and self-destruction I have noticed in certain alumni of the school founded in a meadow by the River Thames in 1440 by King Henry VI. Instilled into Etonians is an unquestioning belief that they have a right to rule the world, and this is both wonderful and dangerous. Wonderful because every child should feel she or he has a right to occupy centre stage; dangerous because if you cannot rule the world you might try to take revenge on it, or on yourself.
One thing I particularly remember about my old school is that the plodding, earnest approach to things was despised. I regret to say that we mocked a contemporary (now a distinguished professor) who wrote an epistolary novel about the 19th-century Scottish folklorist and author Andrew Lang. A wonderfully bizarre undertaking, come to think of it, and not really plodding at all, but undoubtedly serious. As you get older, you come to appreciate the importance both of plodding and of being earnest.
Two contrasting TV documentaries aired this month have brought these feelings into sharper focus. When Boris met Dave was about the school and student days of the two most high-profile British Conservative politicians, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the man many expect to be the next prime minister, David Cameron. This was unfortunately a shoddily made programme in which an actor playing Boris delivered hammily scripted lines which Johnson himself, a genuine wit, could never have uttered. But there was one very funny moment when a man described as “a successful accountant from Godalming” recounted how he beat Johnson in an Oxford Union presidential election by keeping notes on voters in a series of black ledgers. “A bit different from Boris’s back-of-an-envelope calculations,” he chuckled. Here was the apotheosis of the plodder.
Watching Johnson you can’t help feeling that one day he will say or do something so inappropriate that it will defeat even his great powers of escapology. It’s as if ordinary political success, which involves a lot of grinding and, yes, plodding, is somehow too boring; triumph must be plucked from the jaws of disaster using outrageous wit and daring.
Etonians are conditioned to despise the ordinary. Dressed in our strange 19th-century undertaker’s garb, surrounded by great beauty and an imposing weight of history, we were encouraged to reach for the stars. Per ardua ad astra was not the school’s motto, but might have been, with the per ardua bit left out.
The second documentary encapsulated all that is great about Eton. This was the story of Alex Stobbs, a former chorister and music scholar at Eton and now choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge, and his ambition to conduct Bach’s St Matthew Passion, supported with exemplary dedication by the school’s head of music. The only catch is that he suffers from cystic fibrosis, the incurable and progressive disease which destroys the lungs.
When Boris met Dave was ultimately depressing because it left the no doubt misleading impression that both men are motivated by nothing but a rather narrow desire to succeed or get ahead; no sense that they had read books which changed them or been impelled by altruistic concerns. The salvation of Stobbs was his ultimately selfless absorption in and devotion to music and Bach’s Passion in particular.
This salvation was more spiritual and physical; his doctors repeatedly warned him that he was not helping his chances of physical survival by burning the candle at both ends and disregarding their nutritional regime. Stobbs brushed them off with splendid Etonian arrogance. And somehow, in between bouts of illness, attacked by uncharacteristic self-doubt during the rehearsal, he brought it off.
Stobbs’s desire to conduct the Passion may have been partly to do with exercising power, as his “on-off” girlfriend astutely remarked, “because”, she added “he’s not in control of many aspects of his life”. But it was also about the power of music, about putting a short, in this case foreshortened, human life in the service of something much greater, something which radiates outwards in circles of generous feeling and even redemption. I was reminded of the composer Carl Maria von Weber, mortally sick with tuberculosis but continuing to compose his opera Oberon, thinking not of his own frailty but what he might leave to his family, and to the world.