(Above photo - A battered steamer trunk luggage case )
Whenever I see a large steamer trunk luggage case I am always taken back to my school days. At boarding schools it was common - particularly for overseas students - to turn up at the beginning of term with a large luggage case filled with everything needed for the term. Students from all over Asia, the United States, Europe and even Australia and New Zealand would travel for the each term with all their possessions in their battered cases. It’s crazy to think how far they would travel and also that their parents thought it a good idea to pack of their children for months at a time to a cold and rainy England - but then the public school system in the Britain is revered the world over and I would say it does offer a great education (with some caveats).
(Above photo -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Eton )
For starters we need to clarify that when we say ‘public school’ in Britain we really mean private school - yes it doesn’t make sense, another quirky irregularity of the English language and one that often confuses my American friends. The public boarding school system in the UK has a long history and to me it offers a fascinating insight into the history of the country and the very fabric of English culture and society - albeit with a slightly offputting whiff of elitism. Sitting at the top of the public school tree has to be Eaton and Harrow. Amazingly twenty British Prime Ministers went to Eton, incredibly five of them - including Boris Johnson - postwar. That's both a baffling and alarming statistic. Money really can buy you power and privilege and I would say that the ‘old boys’ network still exerts a large and unfair influence over British politics, business and culture. Even when it comes to the world of acting, Eton also has an amazing record when you consider Eddie Redmayne, Damien Lewis, Dominic West and Tom Hiddleston all graced it’s halls. Benedict Cumberbatch - who’d have thought he was posh with a name like that - went to Harrow.
(Above photo - Haileybury College in Hertfordshire )
I myself went to Haileybury College just outside of Hertford in Hertfordshire. I would say Haileybury was in the second tier of public schools alongside other institutions like Wellington, Oundle, Westminster, Winchester, Rugby and Winchester. It’s long name was 'Haileybury and Imperial Service College' and as the title suggests the schools history is intimately intertwined with Britain’s colonial history. At it’s height it was basically a training camp for colonial administration and was originally founded by the East India Company. 'This boy looks good - let’s put him in charge of Mandalay. He’s a jolly good chap, I think he could run the Punjab.' I have just ordered 'The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company' by William Dalrymple as I intend to read more into the - for me - fascinating history and origins of one of the first examples of a truly global corporation.
(Above photo - East India House - Corporate HQ - in London )
The East India Company has a fascinating - some might say dark - history and at it’s height had more power and money than many countries as it looked to maximize profits through colonial expansion. In its heyday the British Empire was the largest in the world as it set to rule over large swathes of the world in a territory on which the ‘sun never sets’. India, also known as 'The Raj', was considered the jewel in the crown - I imagine as it was the biggest and probably generated the most revenue. It’s difficult when you look back as it’s easy to judge via historical revisionism that colonialism was exploitative as indigenous populations were - at best - subjugated and at worst, totally decimated. There are indeed many many dark stains on Britain’s history. At the time the colonial cause was perceived as a positive as we ‘civilized the natives’, often under the guise of Christianity by bringing God to the ’savages’. The justifying rational was - incorrectly in my opinion - perceiving colonialism as improving the quality of lives of the populations of the countries we governed. Let’s be honest - it was total exploitation as we extracted natural resources for great profit with total disregard and disdain for the original inhabitants. That’s my opinion. However it happened and we can’t change the past except to learn from it in the hope of avoiding future mistakes. This seems all the more prescient and topical at the moment as we see statues of slave owners and other questionable figures being torn down in cities across the world.
(Above photo - The dining room at Haileybury - Europe's largest unsupported dome )
As was typical with public schools, Haileybury was it’s own little bubble, like a small town with its own culture and special language, with many often Latin based words. Breaks were called ‘exeats’ and the school was set up by the ‘house’ system which was your first allegiance. The teachers - called 'beaks' - wore black gowns and the architecture was amazing with a domed chapel and a large quadrangle. Indeed the school dining hall has the largest unsupported dome in Europe. It was essentially like Hogwarts minus the magic. Also typically with public schools the elite nature of their very existence - for one you had to be able to afford to go there - instilled a certain arrogance in the pupils. There was always an innate snobbery, townies were seen as commoners - ‘Kevins and Tracey’s’ - and there was always a - dreadful I know - sense that we were being trained for leadership roles and overall excellence. There were plenty double barrel names, hammy accents and the offspring of Lords. Such a smug and over privileged atmosphere that can go someway in explaining the arrogant air that public school boys can give off. Interestingly, I was there in the 90s when it had probably mellowed. Imagine what it was like in the 60s and prior? There was still that overall classic boarding school feeling that what was best for boys was Latin, classics and rugger - if buggery did occur in the showers, then matron and the beaks (teachers) would turn a blind eye to it. I don’t mean to sound overtly negative about my school days when in fact the opposite was true. I had a really good time, did well academically and on the sports field and overall the education was amazing. I felt very lucky to go to such a school with such amazing facilities, whilst being cognizant of some of the issues it’s history presented as I matured and looked back. Plus, I was always very much on guard in the communal showers.
(Above photo - If you want to watch a film which accurately captures the 1960s Public School atmosphere then Lindsay Anderson's 'If' is a must )
Funnily enough, after Haileybury I went on to study at Sussex University - a renowned left wing, some might say radical, institution - which almost presented a polar opposite reading of British history and colonialism. I feel this dichotomy - almost going from one extreme to another - gave me a well grounded insight. As a graduate of English Literature at Sussex most of the ideas and themes made me re-think and unravel what I had been fed at school. Through courses such as 'The Empire Writes Back' and 'Post Colonial Studies' I read other voices on the other side of the colonial experience, commonly presenting a negative narrative to British imperialism. The Caribbean, African and Indian narrative is of course very different to the English one and offered me a great insight to the basic premise that there are always two sides to every story.
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