An Eton Schoolboy’s Album 
by Mark Dixon.
Debrett, 118 pp., £10.95, November 1985, 0 905649 78 8
Show More
Show More

‘I didn’t learn much history at Eton, but one of the first things we were taught was that Henry VI founded Eton, his “College Roiall of oure Lady Eton”, in the year 1440.’ So says Mark Dixon in An Eton Schoolboy’s Album. He may or may not have learned much history, but somewhere along the line Dixon, who left Eton in 1980, has learned how to write in an entertaining and elegant way. I find it difficult to judge the impression it might make on the non-Etonian reader, because in spite of the glossary of Etonian lingo I suspect a corpus of knowledge about the place is necessary to understand that strange self-contained world on the banks of the Thames. The instant effect of Dixon’s photographs on one of my Labour Parliamentary colleagues who himself had left school at 16 was one of relief that his childhood had not been spent in such fraught circumstances.

What I realise from Mark Dixon’s prose, and from occasional visits to the school political society, is that the Eton of 1975-1980 was very different from the Eton of 1945-1950. It may be that I have gained a wrong impression from Dixon’s self-derogatory humour, but I have the feeling that the seriousness of purpose which pervaded post-war Eton has given way to a ‘being with-it’ on the part of both boys and ‘beaks’ – known to the rest of Britain as teachers or school-masters. This, for example, is how Dixon recalls his lessons – or ‘divs’:

My memories of Latin are a jumble. Ablative absolutes. Adverbial accusatives, Gerunds, gerundives and supines. Conjunctions, co-ordinative and subordinative. Conjugations of verbs. Declensions of nouns. The nominative, vocative and accusative cases. The irregular, impersonal, and defective verbs. The masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. And a div reciting, Hic, haec, hoc ... Hunc, hanc, hoc ... Huius, huius, huius ... Huic, huic, huic ... Hoc, hac, hoc. Mixed moments of mythology. Virgil’s Iliad with the Greeks inside the burning city. Was it Troy? King Priam meeting his murderer and calling him a ‘degenerate’, a word I didn’t know in English, let alone in Latin. But I continued construing as far as the Death of Dido.

Thirty years before, the late Richard Martineau, D.P. Simpson or Oliver Hunkin would have made sure that every boy in his class understood what was being taught. As a 12-year-old who hadn’t done Greek at his prep school, I vividly remember the trouble taken by the late L.S. Bethell to allow me to catch up on the mysteries of Greek iambics. This was, and still may be, though we would not think it from Dixon’s book, one of Eton’s great strengths. The beaks took enormous trouble over individual boys. The results were varied. Many talented or clever boys were developed by mentors to whom they have had good reason to be grateful for the rest of their lives. More important in a way, from the point of view of the country, is what Eton and other public schools have done for the not-so-talented or even stupid boys. They have attained a confidence which is out of proportion to their basic intelligence, and have often secured positions in life above their station. It is doubtful whether this has done the country much of a favour.

If Dixon’s picture is accurate, Eton seems to have more in common with St Trinian’s than I remember it having. But then I was at Eton at a very unusual time. Old beaks, made sombre by war and the deaths in battle, were gradually supplanted by younger men, demobbed from the Forces, where to a man they had had a ‘good war’. They were far from being the insensitive ‘officer class’ public-school teachers often portrayed by critics. My housemaster, Tom Brocklebank, an Olympic oarsman and a member of Everest expeditions in the Thirties, treated us all as adults from twelve or thirteen and encouraged me to go to the meetings of the local MP, Fenner Brockway. His moods varied between the charming and the malicious, depending, we thought, on the state of his liver. My first ‘tutor’ – a role that seems to have changed, if Dixon’s portrayal is accurate – was the Reverend R.D.F. Wild, a man whose lugubrious taciturnity and pedantic scholarship would seem hardly to fit Dixon’s Eton. My second ‘tutor’, René Peyrefitte, was French, a glittering intellectual who believed his 15-to-17-year-olds ought to be subject to the rigours of the Sorbonne, whence he came. Work and scholarship mattered to teachers like Oliver Van Oss, M.N. Forrest, A.J. Marsden and Peter Hazell, fresh back from Normandy, Arnhem or the Far East. ‘You’d better realise how lucky you are to be here, and you’d better justify yourselves’: that was their attitude. I don’t detect the same pressures in Dixon’s book, nor the same inculcation of the ethic of public service. Postwar Etonians – and some of our priggish tendencies may thereby have been reinforced – were made acutely aware of social responsibilities. We were made to grow up quick. This was partly because by the age of 18 Etonians were expected to be National Service officers, possibly engaged in combat. I have never quite got over my shock, as a 15-year-old, on learning that the Captain of my house, the immensely talented Paul Graham-Watson, had been killed by guerrilla forces in the Malayan jungle, that my friend George Ponsonby had been killed in an armoured-car accident in BAOR, and that Tony Pugh and Nick Wadham had been killed flying with the RAF on National Service. Adult behaviour was expected at a tender age.

And no one did more to promote the adult ethos of Eton in the late Forties and Fifties, than the (in Eton lingo) ‘head man’. Although he’d been a pre-war headmaster of Charterhouse, Robert Birley was not really a school-master. He arrived from the post of Head of the Allied Education Control Commission in Germany, a towering figure, and a man of magnetic personality. I got to know him well from the start, as I used to take round many of his German guests in 1948-1950. He warmed to me in his first week when I complained that one of his lady German guests had replied to an innocuous question about which was die schönste Stadt in Deutschland with the assured, unaffected answer: ‘Prague.’ Birley didn’t operate like so many of today’s headmasters: he was a teacher, and I found his classes on Dante’s Inferno enthralling. Encouraged by other brilliant minds, such as G.W. Nickson, who ran the Wooton philosophical society, Etonians of my day had few inhibitions about being seen to be either clever or good at sport. One of Eton’s great glories was that it was a tolerant place for the gifted, and there was virtually none of the bullying associated with other public schools. Have things changed? Dixon writes:

Many Etonians look down on others who excel in academic or sporting fields. The sportsmen call the academics ‘swots’ even if they are not hardworking. And the academics call the sportsmen rowers, to imply that they are stupid, and they call them this even if they are not wet-bobs [Etonian for those who row in summer, rather than play cricket]. Those who excel in both do not escape a label; they are called ‘too keen’.

When I became a teacher at Bo’ness Academy, West Lothian, I was very aware of peer-group pressures among pupils. I was not so aware of such pressures at post-war Eton. Perhaps Eton has followed along with British society? One of its strengths is the extent to which it is run by the boys themselves. The problems of the inner-cities are light-years away: if a teacher at Eton is gently teased from time to time, that is as far as it goes. Boys, and now girls – a development not covered by Dixon – can learn without distraction, which gives them a great advantage over so many contemporaries. Look how the serious ‘misdemeanour’ is treated:

If you have done something wrong and you get caught, you will be on the head master’s bill, or, as is more often said, on the bill. You will usually first hear of your appointment with the head man during the div directly after chambers.

Your formal summons will often take place while the beak taking your div is half-way through some lengthy dissertation. The door of the school room is flung open by a praeposter. He will be wearing the full uniform of sixth form select: stick ups, silver buttons on his braided waistcoat, and if he’s a tug member, he will also sport a gown.

‘Is Dixon Ma in this division?’ The praepostor is not required to wait for the beak to come to the end of his sentence. As ambassador of the head man, he has important business to execute and politeness is not expected.

It is for the beak and not the boy to reply. If the answer is, ‘yes’, the praepostor will continue, ‘He is to see the head master, on the bill, at 1.05 today.’ Without a goodbye, or so much as a nod of the head, the praepostor slams the door behind him and moves on to summon the next criminal.

Eton is thirty miles from Brixton, but it could be on a different planet. Ironically, the politician responsible for Brixton, Handsworth and Tottenham is an old Etonian, a former Captain of the School, and, I suspect, the next leader of the Conservative Party: Douglas Hurd, who writes: ‘Eton is a beautiful place full of eccentric characters doing odd things; so it is a natural target for an affectionate photographer. The latest to aim at the target is Mark Dixon, who as an Etonian was sufficiently relaxed to spend most of his time with his camera. This spirited book shows that it was time well spent.’ By my criteria, Mark Dixon’s time was not well spent. And Douglas Hurd would certainly have caned him for being insufficiently keen, if he’d been around in 1948. But then 1978 is not 1948. If the state wants people to run British industry well, I am exceedingly dubious about the Etonian virtues. What I am sure about is that Eton beaks of my day, Tory as well as Labour, would have been appalled at the treatment meted out by government to their teaching colleagues in state schools.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences