Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A ray of light?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I call my mother. She is very worried by the political situation. We discuss the precarious state of poor old Blighty's Triple A rating and the terrifying level of the national debt and how much blood and treasure the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost. She is also worried about the looming council cuts.

'The old people,' she says mournfully. She has always fretted about the old people, even before she was one.

'And they are threatening to close the libraries,' I shout. I have always fretted about the public libraries, our great unsung national treasures.

Even I, a lifelong Labour voter, have to admit that a change of government may be the only answer.

'Oh,' she says. 'But I would not want to be poor David Cameron.' Because the new crop of politicians are so young, and she has reached a venerable age, she always talks of them with maternal concern, as if worried that they are not getting enough iron in their diet, or they might forget to wear a vest in the cold weather.

'Well,' I say, 'everyone says he is at his best in a crisis.'

'Ah,' she says, brightening. 'Of course. They always say: in a crisis, call for an old Etonian.'

'Mum,' I say. 'Who says that? No one I know says that.'

'The war,' she says staunchly. 'Won on the playing fields of Eton.'

'That was the battle of Waterloo,' I say. 'And it was really quite a long time ago.'

'Oh,' she says. 'Yes.' She starts to laugh, helplessly. 'Oh well,' she says.  'Never mind.'

Afterwards I think: maybe she has a tiny point. It's fashionable to write off Etonians as effete toffs, running around in those penguin suits with their top hats and their privilege. What can they know of the good ordinary hard-working Britons? The lesser-known fact is that this tiny elite school produced thirty-seven gallant recipients of the Victoria Cross. Almost two thousand of its alumni died in the two great wars. (Over ten thousand fought.) The much-admired Colonel H Jones, who fell at Goose Green, went to Eton. It also gave us William Gladstone, George Orwell, Robert Byron, Humphrey Lyttleton and Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty International. (Benenson was an extraordinary man, who should be better known. When he was only sixteen, he set up a fund for the orphans of the Spanish Civil War. He went on to serve at Bletchley Park during the second war, breaking German cyphers; founded JUSTICE in the fifties, an organisation for human rights and law reform; and finally, with several others, started Amnesty.)

I don't know how much difference it makes, where you went to school. I usually think the Eton debate is a silly diversion, a shorthand for lazy inverted snobbery and the putting of people into reductive little boxes. I have an old-fashioned liberal belief in taking a person on their merits, not their accent. But wouldn't it be lovely if my old mum was right? Because if ever there was a crisis, we are slap bang in the middle of it, and someone must be called for.

Photographs of the day:

Etonians, by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Etonians by Henri Cartier Bresson

A lone Etonian, watched by local boys at the 1937 Eton-Harrow cricket match, by Jimmy Sime:

local boys look on amused at eton scboys in formal uniform at v harrow crick match at lords, by Jimmy Sime 1937 (2)_s


  1. I worry about the cuts that affect old people, my father uses his local library every week and would miss it terribly. I think a change of government would be good, they all seem to go wrong after two terms. I'd also like to say I've had four 'serious' boyfriends all of whom went to Eton (in different years!) and they were all wonderful. It's a great school that has produced some great men. Hope you're well xx

  2. It is a bit of a dilemma this election. Although I've always been a bit politically rad, I do have a soft spot for stupid British traditions, like Eton, the Royal Family etc in a dumb wistful way. It's just when you start thinking about the consequence of privileges to a small minority and who it is in their interests to represent that things get messy. I for one agree with everything you have said about the state of this country in economic terms, but I'm under no allusion about what would happen if the Tories got in. They would get rid of the NHS and scrap the welfare state; two British things that I am rather proud of despite their obvious shortcomings. When Boris Johnson was elected as Major of London, I felt it was because people "fancied a change". But we are not talking about whether to have a different colour wallpaper or not. Voting is not about "fancying a change", it is sometimes ruefully about voting for the lesser of two evils, and if that means not having a US style system whereby people cannot even afford to go the doctors, then I know where my vote is going!

  3. He was a Harrovian and he was not alone; see: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ian-jack/5-boys


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