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.


euge said...

An article by David Crystal in a recently issued prize-winning pre-intermediate (!) Macmillan coursebook spoke of...exactly that: social background. I told my half-benumbed students how dramatically social background and class issues make England resemble its long-lost gem - India. It cost me a downright request to tell them where I was from!

Is there a place under the Sun where humans spend less energy on finding what - if any - there is to make them superior to others?

MasterMan said...

India indeed, amen to that! If there is such a place as you say, this is definitely not it :)

Yiyi said...

Bravo! Keep your Tesco Value and the alpidistrae flying.
Big greetings (if possible to say it like that)!

DraXus said...


Toby Young said...

Didn't meant to be stand-off-ish and it certainly wasn't because you're a "darkie". I was simply worried about missing my train back to London and didn't want to be drawn into a lengthy conversation. You must learn to be a little less chippy. 99% of snobbery is in the imagination of the so-called victim and this is a case in point.

MasterMan said...

Mr Young, thank you for your most unexpected comment.

I am sure that you, sir, understand very well that life is a terribly bad novelist. One must weed out the irrelevant and click together the interesting to make a story. That was my way, at that time, of spinning facts and feelings into a coherent whole with a backbone and a conclusion. (And a bit of moral superiority for good measure)

So, yes, my experience at Eton had by then made me a tad "chippy" as you say, and on the other hand you are of course very well entitled to your standoffishness and under no obligation to find me likeable. Whatever your reasons for that, they are your own and none of my business.

Yet natural human curiosity keeps us asking ourselves "why", and when trying to understand people's actions and reactions one has to try and empathize with them, and I know that in order for me to be standoffish towards someone (as I have way too often encountered around here), he must have done me great wrong. Doing this to someone I don't know at all would make me feel vile and subhuman. So I need to find some reasons, and those just fit in wonderfully with the story.

Funny though that you should only choose to comment on that bit.