Public Schools 

(The Sunday Times')
2003

10:33pm 14/ 07/ 84

On train – Birmingham (ethnic place); wondered idly whether some racist maniac would get on train and kill any ‘blacks’ he saw.. Where would they send my luggage,with my journals?’

That diary entry, written when I was 15, is a significant one for me. It’s the only mention during my schooldays, my public schooldays, of racial ’fear’. And i wasn’t even at school at the time; I was in transit, returning from my boarding establishment deep in the country, one Malvern College, to my home in inner city London, for the summer holidays. There are amused asides in that diary,that i kept from my second year there, on walking into local cafes with white schoolmates and seeing the interested reactions on locals’ faces, and comments on racism in Conrad’s novels, but nothing about racial grief in the corridors or playgrounds. Looking at it now, with with a more jaundiced adult perspective, particularly in a week when Eton’s headmaster has seen fit to write to his pupils’ parents about bullying, racism and homophobia in the school, the solitariness of that entry feels curiouser and curiouser. But it’s a true reflection. To amend the cliche, I’d have to say that those school years, Race in Britain-wise, were probably the happiest years of my life.

Malvern, like our football rivals Eton, was in the classic public school mould: all boys – 600, of which 6orseven wereblack and ten or so were Asian during my time there - spacious grounds, high fees, house rather than school-centric. I arrived there courtesy of a scholarship. My family didn’t have money but we weren’t ‘deprived.’ My folks ran an education-centred household and, we,my three state-school attending brothers and I, all spoke relatively ‘well, not too London. I think that all helped – being a scholar proved that I was good at something ,and a neutral voice meant there was one less thing for these posher kids to pick on you for.

As any boarding-school veteran will tell you, these places can resemble one of the tougher prisons you hear about. After - sometimes even before the housemaster goes to bed, it turns pure‘Lord of The Flies’ in there, with the bigger inmates taking over the escape-proof asylum. Your first year is largely concerned with survival strategies which chiefly involved securing the patronage of older more powerful, popular boys. And, to win them over, you needed to be good at something.To be good at sports was the best – a clear house asset, but you could be funny or clever, so long as you weren’t too swotty; you could be pretty (homophobia was loudly proclaimed but homo-eroticism was everywehere), or take up smoking to ease yourself into the bad boys’ crew, or simply be good at being a’man’, which meant being robust and game for an escapade and, crucially, physically mature.....
 


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