Harry Mount

In defence of Eton’s Provost

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The world divides into two groups. Those who liked school and those who didn’t. Sir Nicholas Coleridge, the next Provost of Eton, is firmly in the first group. In an article in the Telegraph, he has frankly admitted that he prefers people who went to Eton, as he did. He said:

I am bound to say that if I meet somebody that I have never met before – for example, if I am travelling abroad, or through work or something – and it emerges that they were at Eton, I feel an interest in them that is multiplied by at least ten.

If we are being completely candid, I do accept that I prefer the company of Etonians to the company of people from any other school in the world.

This might sound shockingly snobbish to some. But in fact he’s just stating a truth most of us subscribe to. We are more interested in those who share something with us – particularly if it’s five years at a boarding school in your formative years. I went to Westminster School 35 years ago and I can still have endless conversations with my old friends there, about different teachers, pupils and incidents we think are outrageously funny – that others would find crushingly dull. That fellowship applies even to people who were there at different times. 

I recently had dinner with someone who had been at Westminster ten years after me. We could still play the name game – of various teachers we’d loved and hated. These feelings of mutual solidarity, forged by closeness in your childhood, are intensified at Eton. It is the most famous school in the world – and the poshest. That produces buckets of the legendary Etonian confidence. It also means the richest and grandest parents send their children there. 

A friend of mine, himself educated at Rugby, once said to me: ‘People only send their children to private school so they can have posh voices and be well-connected for life.’ He was joking. Even he acknowledged that some public schools, like Eton, are extremely good academically. But there is an element of truth in it, too. 

These feelings of mutual solidarity, forged by closeness in your childhood, are intensified at Eton

If you go to Eton or some other big, famous public school, you will forever be bumping into people who also went there. And it’s undeniable that you feel a sort of connection with them – even if sometimes you can’t stand them. That public-school confidence is a sort of magic weapon, which can often conceal aching voids of talent beneath. Matthew Parris once wrote about an American friend of his, married to a public school boy 12 years after the marriage. She came to him and said: “Matthew, why didn’t you tell me he was so stupid? I thought he knew everything because he said he knew everything.’ Captain Grimes, the pederast master in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, declares: ‘That’s the public school system all over. They may kick you out, but they never let you down.’

He is right – to a certain extent. As Coleridge said, schools produce a sort of club of old boys: ‘It is probably true to say that of the ten close male friends I have, certainly eight are Etonians, and I have not the slightest doubt that it will remain so until I die.’

Not every public schoolboy prospers, though. I could tell the story of dozens of tragic deaths, lives destroyed by drink and drugs, and people who never quite got a career off the ground, particularly if they’re weighed down with an onerous trust fund. Coleridge is certainly not in that bracket. I know him a little and, as well as being a very successful head of Condé Nast, he is one of life’s enthusiasts, lifting any conversation you have with friendliness and wit. He is also extremely honest and prepared to say things that are right but unpopular. We’ll be hearing lots more golden nuggets from him when he takes up his job as Provost next year. I can’t wait.