Sunday, 16 February 2020

THAMES: 7) The Eaten

Eton College. What a pain.

The cannon is because they knew we were coming.
There is no straightforward way to handle this one. Most English people know of Eton College, if more through its mythos than the thing itself. And one does not simply know Eton College. Generally speaking, to know Eton College is to either adore it or to resent it to every monied brick in its crenellations.

Why, indeed, does a school need crenellations?

Perhaps to call it a school is misleading. It is a school, of course – the most infamously exclusive in England (and needless to say, one of the most expensive) – but only in the first instance. In the ways that matter it is so much more.

What we have here is an England. Eton College is an embodiment of this country, or rather of a specific vision of it which, though only a tiny minority of its population ever passes through its doors, wreaks so reekingly powerful an impact on the majority that it needs no introduction. A vision so storied, so intractable, that to its detractors, and there are many, Eton is no less than the principal sausage-factory of England’s white, male, upper-caste forces of destruction and the ultimate locus of fault for the ruin of their land.

Thus while physical Eton nests safe and snug in the Thames Valley, imaginary Eton is a castle under permanent siege. And behind its walls, as much as anywhere else in the world, there is no hard border between reality and imagination. That, perhaps, explains the crenellations.

Is it fair to lay guilt for so supreme a crime at the gates of one mere school? The real significance of the condemnation of Eton in these terms is perhaps less literal, more mythic: a permanent counter-mythology which, in crashing upon the school’s mythology, becomes half the dialectic nest of narrative power which sustains the legend of Eton. But in factual terms the case is not without grounds. To say nothing of its graduates’ perpetual dominance in media, commerce, religion and the military, the twenty prime ministers it has manufactured include both the individual who instigated the Brexit crisis for no reason, David Cameron, and the one who now consummates its descent into the abyss of authoritarian nationalism, Boris Johnson. This entire saga can and has been read as the continuation of a tussle between these two bully-boys which started in Eton’s playgrounds: rollicking, soaked in seven varieties of bodily fluids, now spilt out to nation-wrecking scale. And then, goes this telling, once the country’s breaking is complete, the lives of everyone in it laid waste, and their chisel lodged securely in their mortal wound to the post-World War II European peace settlement, these Etonian man-boys will bear none of the consequences but march away across a burning horizon, underpants overflowing with multiple multimillion-pound incomes for doing nothing while they slap each other’s backs, chortling at what a fun game it all was – and really believing it.

The game. Here and in the wider English public-school universe, this seems to be the operating principle, the nexus to which everything returns. The world is your game, and this is how you play it. If that means the Boris and Dave Show is Eton’s doing, how often has the same been the case for the political currents that shaped England and Britain in the past? Conspiracy theories are dangerous and should not be mistaken for serious consideration. But the distance between reasonable suspicions on the one hand, and the mythic image of this place as the puppeteers’ tower behind so many of England’s imperial misdeeds and perennial structures of oppression on the other, is not great enough to satisfy scrutiny.

What shall we do with it? There is no getting around it, because cross the bridge from Windsor and there it is, lording upon the northern bank where it secretes a power uniquely its own. A power not jewel-studded or glintingly solid like the stone towers of royalty it faces across the river, yet nonetheless every bit its equal and in practical terms quite possibly its superior. Its crown is made of different material: subtler, less tangible, wafting and oozing and sausaging rather than towering, all the more challenging to pin down for how it is in that very swirl of myths and symbols, ever elusive to those they are designed to ward away, that is concealed the source of Eton’s power.

Upon Windsor Bridge, facing upriver (west) with Windsor at left and Eton right. The college’s old boathouse facilities at right have been re-done into apartments; instead of the river they now train at a colossal artificial lake further upstream.
Less a school, then, and more a phenomenon: one built right into the heart of both the stories and power relations of the phenomenon called England. Its class system, its problems of race and gender, its land, its empire, and now its post-imperial nervous breakdown – everything refracts through the Etonian prism in ways that are impossible to grasp, because as soon as you get close, it moves, teasingly, just enough, like the well-timed evasive twist of a cricket bat, then chuckles down at you that you’ll never really get it because after all, it’s just a game, and you’re not special enough to play it.

Maybe so. But it so happens we’re playing a larger game here and Eton is in the way. Let’s devour some sausages.

Your barricades will be of no use, Eton College.

Start: Windsor Bridge (nearest stations: Windsor and Eton Riverside; Windsor and Eton Central)
End: Maidenhead Bridge (nearest station: Maidenhead)
Length: 10.5km/6.5 miles
Location: Berkshire – Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead; Buckinghamshire – South Bucks

Topics: Eton College, Eton’s backyard, Boveney and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church (which is special), vampires (Oakley Court) and cannibals (Monkey Island, Headpile Eyot), Bray, Maidenhead