This is an intimate and moving memoir which confronts one of the most serious and age old causes of social immobility in Britain.
It describes the many excellent things which distinguish an education at Eton for a boy growing into a young man, but it ends with a damning rejection of just such an education because of the unfairness, entitlement and irredeemable damage which that institution has for so long inflicted, and continues to inflict, on the UK.
It is not just Eton, more or less the same goes for all private educational establishments, but certainly Eton is the leader in the pack. Something has to be done about this.
Musa Okwonga, a black boy attending a comprehensive school in London, saw a documentary about Eton. His parents had fled the war in Uganda to which his father returned to fight, and was killed.
Musa’s mother had told her son that the only way to break free of racism is to be the best, and he told her that he wanted to go to Eton because it sounded and looked so brilliant. His mother worked hard and saved, Musa worked hard and won a scholarship; after Eton he went to Oxford. Born in 1979, Okwonga is a writer, broadcaster and musician and lives in Berlin.
During his first three years at Eton, Okwonga says “my brains were always being tested”. He consistently speaks very highly and appreciatively about the qualities of and humanity displayed and offered to all students by his teachers and housemaster.
He distinguished himself in just about every way, including football, and was very popular. However, a group known as ‘the lads’ clearly disliked him. These ‘lads’, belonging to a generational tradition, knew that what matters above all else, is achieving high office within the school.
“I watch boys campaign for election as prefects with a vigour that I will later see in the world of politics and I will realise that this is the kind of place where these politicians learned it, that this is what they mean by networking.
“Networking is the art of laughing a little longer and louder than necessary at the jokes of the person whose patronage you seek……I look at the most confident people in my year and I realise that the greatest gift that has been bestowed upon them is that of shamelessness.
“Shamelessness is the superpower of a certain section of the English upper classes……They don’t learn shamelessness at Eton , but this is where they perfect it”.
Okwonga tells us that Eton does not like talking about itself, and this is a lesson that many, if not most, of its students have absorbed (to do so would too easily lead to historical scrutiny and there, not so deeply down, lies shame).
He adds “when people criticise Eton to me, I at first find myself defending the kind people I knew there, the patient teachers and the charismatic pupils. But then I step back and I understand that these people are not attacking those acts of kindness; they are striking at something bigger and much more important than that.
“They are attacking my school for its role in moulding the leaders of a society which for millions of people is unfit for purpose. They are attacking its failure to acknowledge that role. People often ask how it is possible to remain out of touch with the majority of society for your entire life, but it’s really quite simple.
“If you go to a preparatory school from the age of seven, then you board at Eton till eighteen, then you live with your schoolfriends in private accommodation at university, and then you see them all in the City, you essentially spend your formative years in a gated community.
“That’s why you see politicians who attended boarding school looking bewildered when they wander around underfunded areas of the country – it’s because they are seeing actual poverty for the first time”.
Near the end of his book, Okwonga asks why wouldn’t many of his school contemporaries vote for austerity?
It’s so much easier to deprive your fellow voters if you’ve never paid careful attention to their suffering; and he adds “a key problem for too many people from my school is that they’ve never really seen widespread poverty.
“They have read about it, and maybe even seen it on their gap years or trips abroad, but they don’t really believe in it – that is to say, they largely think it is something you can elevate yourself out of, if you are just a little smarter, work just a little harder……..
“We are absolutely sure that most of us will be affluent, if not wealthy. On the whole, hard times do not happen to us, while for most of the rest of society hard times are the norm”.
‘One Of Them’ is a frank and penetrating memoir which is at the same time a very engaging read. Its cry for change is irrefutable, yet the book’s great strength is its simple charm, delivered through short anecdotes and musings which draw us to the inevitable conclusion.
Okwonga does not tell us what has to be done, other than to say that nothing will change until a majority tells the politicians to act, or else. His book is another powerful contribution towards persuading the electorate to demand that change.
Christopher was director of the RSA, Royal Society of Arts, !977-94. His main educational concern since then has been to promote forms of learning which engage young people’s creative energies as recommended in All Our Futures, a report by the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (1999). He is a co-founder of PEPF.