Monday, 22 November 2010

The old school tie

School ties I had chanced upon this expression a number of times, most importantly in Orwell’s writing. I knew it was one of those things to do with the British obsession with class, but I had no idea of how far it went. Boy, was I in for a treat.

As many others do, Toby Young (of How to lose friends and alienate people fame) came to Eton to give a talk, in which he read the “prologue” (The return of the Eton mob) of a book he has in the works. It was a fantastic reading, perfect pitch, intonation, everything. And with every sentence he read I heard a click; a piece of the puzzle fell into place.

I had been collecting these pieces for a long time but I had them in all the wrong order. Now they suddenly fit together and sense shone at the seams. Everything he spoke about, his time at Oxford, how he wasn’t accepted or successful there because his origins and manners and accent and whatnot where not quite posh enough; how Hugh Grant (who according to him comes from a similarly upper-middle-class non-public-school background) did make it big because he knew how to impersonate the persona; how modals and manners are just a charade played to the entertainment of a certain class; how his teachers told him he should never say “I went to a school called…” as if you were ashamed of your school not being one of the famous ones… it was all gospel to me. I learned so much right there and then that I can’t write it down without it becoming a book (yet another one). My first proper introduction to the British class system.

Winchester school tieI loved it so much that after he finished I sidled up to talk to him. I was initially met with reasonable politeness, which metamorphosed into coldness and distance with amazing speed as soon as I had uttered 3 words of greeting. I made him visibly very uncomfortable (an effect I find I very often have on people around here). This man, who criticized and “exposed” the snobbishness of a class system that in his view ostracized him for not having the required “pedigree” was in fact so deeply a part of it that to him I was a very unsettling incongruence: What was I doing there? A scruffy looking foreigner attending his lecture to Eton boys? A darkie, as it were. Who did I think I was to approach him?

It was my final moment of revelation, of epiphany. Like Neo at the end of Matrix (one), like Alice at the end of herself in Wonderland, the world became lined with falling, fusing green characters, and the whole pack of cards rose up into the air. My eyes were open, I could now see.

Merchant Taylors' school tieFor some reason, I didn’t quite seem to fit in here. Frequently I would open my mouth and it would seem I had just made a faux pas. Surely I have made a good number of them as usual, this I am aware of, but it was strange that I wouldn’t get it right once. I kept blaming myself and coming up with one thousand and one explanations of what exactly I was doing wrong, and kept finding faults in my demeanour, etiquette, attitude, manners, you name it. I knew I was doing something wrong but didn’t know what it was exactly. It turns out that what I definitely got wrong, my one massive mistake, was ever expecting to fit in.

One could say British society has moved on a great deal from classical Victorian times. Now it doesn’t seem to matter that much what your parents deal in or what colour you are. The one thing that matters and will always matter, the one thing everybody asks in these circles, is what school you went to. University is secondary. It always helps if it’s Oxbridge, but it could be any “red brick”* and it changes little if you are, say, an Old Etonian.

Westminster school tieI already knew that dress code was… well, coded. I first discovered this when I was to attend an event that required “Black Tie”. I thought “oh fine, I just need to find a black tie”. And they said “no no no my frien, you no understan” (ok, those were the words of a Thai scooter-taxi driver, but this was an almost exact replica of that moment) -  Black Tie stands for black bowtie, which implies a silk-lapelled dinner jacket, silk-lined trousers, patent leather shoes, a white shirt with cufflinks and a bowtie which funnily enough can in fact be any colour of the rainbow.

In the same way, the last event before Long Leave was to be “Suit and tie”. You might think this straightforward enough. I know I did. Now this turned out to be coded as well. The suit is a normal suit, any suit, yes, but the tie, ah the tie!, the tie is you old school tie, the tie you wore at school, because of course you went to a school where you had to wear a uniform which included a tie. Who doesn’t?

Eton school tieAnd why is this? It is so that Old Etonians, Old Harrovians and such ilk can recognize each other and say “Ah, you!, you sir are one of mine!, you and I play in the same league old chap!”, knowing themselves above all the scum with less-pedigreed stripes on the pieces of cloth hanging from their necks, so that everyone can spot his own among the strangers.

So this is the world I have been thrust into. Very interesting as a sociological study, yes, but now I see this demeaning, debasing, small-minded world for what it is I would never want to be a part of it, even if I could ever fit in. I’ve decided I’d much rather keep my Tesco Value tie and my humanity.

* Recently established UK universities of lesser prestige.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Common Lane

2 Common Lane

See that house? This is where I live, 2 Common Lane.

Google Streetview never made it here, so I have to grace you with some of my own pictures. I share quite a big house with other teachers, all of them fantastically awesome chummy chums. (They might read this, so some ass-kissing is inevitable, but the truth is they are all actually really cool)

My bedroomMy bedView from my window

We each have two rooms in it, a bedroom upstairs and a study downstairs, apparently for tax reasons – our study counts as our workplace. In my case, it really is, for this is where I do all the teaching. I have to say it’s really handy.

We have an amazing garden at the back with lawn of perfect radioactive green and a huge weeping willow and a bit of jungle around the corner. I can only wish the right weather will one day come to make proper use of it!

As for the location, the house is perfectly situated some 100m from the main "attractions": the main college building, the library, the gym and pool. I wish it was also 100m away from the railway (aka the Portal to London), but alas, that’s a 15min walk.

Update: Slideshow!

Sunday, 10 October 2010


It is 7:32 am. Sam knows this because it says so on his computer screen. At this time someone opens his studio door, pokes his head in and says “oh… is this Tom’s room?”. Reply: “No, who are you?”. He mumbles something about repairs and the front door being unlocked and goes away. Sam ponders the logic statement “Entity: (probably) Burglar –> Action: Hit with golf club”. But this straightforward approach is thwarted by the thought “What a racist I am! Just because he’s black!”.

So Sam thinks no more about this and goes to have breakfast. When he’s back, his laptop, wallet and phone have sublimated, as has his bike (borrowed, not even his), and another 3 laptops, 1 wallet, 1 iPod, check books and other easy-to-sell stuff from around the house. Sam concludes: “Gosh, I wish I was more racist!”.

That’s the story as Sam tells it anyway.

More details emerged later: The guy tried to get into other houses and failed so he finally forced one of our windows open with a plank he broke from the wooden table in our garden, came into Tom’s studio, trashed it and took everything he thought valuable and small, including his wallet which explains how he knew his name. He walked right past a £500 mike, which is both lucky and tells us he knows nothing about music or the modern hardware used for it (clue number two). After meeting Sam he probably hid somewhere else in the house until he left, then proceeded to plunder the rest at leisure.

I was the lucky one of the bunch, he took nothing of mine. Also, it might have helped that I don’t leave anything of value in my studio (much less my wallet) and always lock my bedroom. The one thing he could have taken from me is my Eton laptop, which must have had 10 previous owners, one of them in all likelihood Fred Flintstone. I so wish he had taken it, so I could get a new one.

So yes, interesting things can happen around here. It’s bad enough that it happened but perhaps the worst of it is, when you think about it, that we were burgled by the shittiest burglar in all of Slough, probably shortlisted for shittiest in Berkshire. He tries to get into houses at random, doesn’t even bring his own crowbar and, to add insult to injury, makes off on the bike he steals.

It is not the first time this happens, and I bet it won’t be the last. Slough is just too close. Maybe they’ll take my rubbish laptop next time, fingers crossed.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


Upper School, Chambers meeting

I am in a big room that predates me by over 500 years, lined up with busts of Eton’s most illustrious sons, on the wooden panels on its walls thousands of names proudly carved in heavy Latin script.

I am in the midst of a gathering of a hundred and fifty men (and some 10 women) wearing penguin suits and bowties and harrypotteresque gowns over that, who are all stamping their feet (the accepted form of applause at Eton) and the floor is shaking, in spite of the padded carpet preemptively in place. The Head Master is masterfully delivering one of his encouraging “well done” speeches, which I always enjoy listening to but the point of which I invariably forget the instant he is done. After his final and dismissive "thank you”, the volume in the room rises up from complete silence to a “fahfahfahfahfohfoh” crescendo like there was someone slowly turning a knob.

This meeting is supposed to serve a double purpose: both to hear important announcements by the Head Master and Lower Master and to conduct official school business with other beaks in the few minutes before and after that. Tradition dictates that if you want to speak to someone you have to hold on to his gown (which is why everybody has to wear one*). This is recursive; if someone else wants to speak to that person he (very occasionally she) will then have to hold on to your gown and so on. It is quite common to have chains of 3 or 4 people holding on to each other’s gown.

The meeting finished, everybody rushes off to their divs, some stopping by School Office to check their pigeon holes. Outside the main building, boys are waiting to try and get hold of beaks, most often because they have been told by those masters to “see me after Chambers”. They might have misbehaved or want a quiet word about something.  

CIMG4258-1It is an interesting experience, bizarre and slightly surreal like everything else around here, but once the novelty fades it becomes just a right pain in the arse. This happens every morning, 11:20 to 11:40, Monday to Saturday, and it is compulsory to attend. Us Language Assistants don’t have to be there on a Saturday, but it still means Mon-Fri I have to jump out of bed into a suit just to go loaf around for 20 minutes (bonus picture: me in a suit) and all I can think is: there go 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Of course nowadays most school business is carried over email, which is quicker and better no matter how you look at it. So why Chambers then? Just for an extra bit of social atmosphere? Why compulsive Chapel for boys at 8:35am? Why the penguin suits and the black shoes? Why the gown-pulling and the foot stamping? Why beaks? Why the Wall Game**? 

There’s a saying around here, it goes:

“Ask not why, ask since when.”


* Except us Assistants, nobody wants to speak to us.
** Quidditch

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Eton College

Slough is rumoured to be rough, and this year I am working at a public charity for boys just outside of Slough.

Technically, this is all true, as Slough “has a relatively high crime rate, with figures for all crime statistic categories above the English average and figures for several categories more than double the English average” and Eton College "is one of the original nine English public schools as defined by the Public Schools Act 1868”, Wikipedia dixit. However, it is also true that Windsor Castle (one of the Queen’s residences) is a 10-min walk away, that Windsor is a tourist wonderland and that Eton is commonly perceived to be the cream of the crop amongst the most exclusive schools for boys in the world.

The King's College of Our Lady of Eton beside WindsorOnly boys study here, so a boy is a pupil/student. Yet a beak is a teacher, the headmaster is the Head Master, a class is a div, boys in the same year are a block, a term is a half (Michaelmas, Lent and Summer, so 3 halves), lessons in the morning are scheduled as schools (1st School 9:00-9:40, 2nd School 9:50-10:30 and so on to 5th) and those after lunch as After Four (4:30-5:10), After Five (5:20-6:00) and After Six (6:15-7:15). After lessons and in between them, much sport is done, and a number of games unique to Eton are played here, like Eton Fives and The Wall Game.

So what am I doing here? I am not a boy, not yet a beak, but I am the Spanish Assistant at Eton College for 2010/2011 – though I prefer the rather pompous term Lector, fahfahfah. I am here to teach the boys and help them with their oral Spanish (however that may sound). There is a new Lector every year, all of them from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, so here is another reason to consider myself lucky to have studied there. This is for me an amazing opportunity to get to know the Tradition that inspired Harry Potter from the inside and to teach in possibly the best environment one could hope for.

For Eton is… special. It is special in so many ways that it will take me many, many posts to point it out. So as this new journey of discovery and understanding I am embarked on progresses I will endeavour to share my discoveries. You’re welcome to tag along!