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Artillery Row Books

The perils of privilege

Musa Okwonga’s memoir about his time at Eton is a confused account of having access to everywhere but belonging nowhere

Privilege has never been more complicated. Until recently, being an Old Etonian and an Oxford law graduate would have put you on a frictionless path to a high income and, perhaps, even higher self-esteem. Whereas being black, bisexual and coming from West Drayton would fix you on a very different point of the social spectrum. 

But what if, like the author of One of Them: An Eton College Memoir, Musa Okwonga, you’re all these things? Where does that leave you now in a society that, increasingly, reveres individual identity if it contains a perceived element of victimhood and marginalisation? Such a situation is, to use the language of wokeness, problematic.

It is certainly difficult for Okwonga to decide if he has been advantaged by going to (in his words) “the school of my dreams”, or if he feels it has actively worked against him, turning him, by association (and accent) into “one of them”: the Borises, Daves, and Jacobs, that political class he claims to despise. But irrespective of whether or not we see him as an outsider, or part of the establishment, you would think that there are enough intersectional conflicts in his story to produce something that might illuminate the more incendiary ingredients of today’s culture wars.

Okwonga’s struggles are rather modest in scope

Sadly, you would be wrong. Yes, this is a book about identity and belonging, but so deeply torn is Okwonga by the position he finds himself in after he leaves his unexceptional hometown for Eton that he spends much of the ninety seven (very brief) chapters grinding away in a narrative neutral gear. Okwonga sees himself as both a “poor little posh boy”, a friend and confidant of the children of rich industrialists and royalty, but also as someone who thinks that those very same people see him as “here to invade and then bleed dry the British state, slashing at it with our knives, dragging out its steaming guts with our greedy hands”. Such a schizophrenic view is not untypical of Okwonga’s position, nor is the rather alarming imagery.

If this intensity of self-scrutiny was sustained it would be interesting, if a little tiresome. Again, sadly, it isn’t. Indeed, at times Okwonga’s attention is drawn to detail which is almost comically dull. It is hard not to regret the seconds lost from your life after you read sentences such as: “The school long-jump competition didn’t go well for me”, or “This will be the beginning of my love affair with jackets”, and then struggle to get through a chapter, short but not sweet though it is, which is entirely dedicated to the school tuck shop (“a whole establishment dedicated to the art of tooth decay”). Okwonga’s struggles are rather modest in scope.

And then there is the imagery he uses which is, at best, weird, and at worst, a barrier to understanding. Take, for instance, this: “Seeing him laugh is as shocking as watching a shark playing fetch”; or of another boy who has a hairstyle “resembling a trilobite”, which Okwonga helpfully goes on to explain is “one of those marine fossils you find at museum”. In one lengthy and surreal description Okwonga writes of a boy that, “When he sprints, his buttocks look like two men fighting to push past each other on an escalator.” What does the inclusion of the escalator add to this already bizarre simile? He continues this description by stating that his running style is “unique” and would “immediately identify him to police”. Every page seems to contain something equally odd, both in terms of description and understanding.

And this lack of understanding seems to exist at every level. He seems to not fully know what genre he is writing in, confessing that he doesn’t want to attend a school reunion because it is “essentially a referendum on whether I am happy to display the life I have made … and if I am truthful with myself then the answer is ‘no’”. But this is on the first page of his autobiography, which surely must be the apex of vanity, a huge vote in favour of self-display.

Stranger still, he doesn’t seem to understand Eton itself. He attributes its many traditions, including its own terminology and uniform, as evidence of some grand design hatched somewhere around 1440 to propel its students to become important. But ancient traditions don’t evolve like that: there is no predetermined plan, no cabal of Beaks contriving a fiendishly clever set of arcane rules and actions that include the wearing of tailcoats, the tearing of homework, or the making a delicious meringue-based dessert, all of which will, cunningly, go on to result in political dominance. 

The author uses language of deep affection for an institution that helped him immeasurably

There are of course many on the political left who see public schools as the engines of not just privilege, but of astonishing levels of influence. They overestimate their importance in the formation of character and the shaping of society. Yes, schools play a part in making us who we are, but so do genetics, parents, talent, luck, ambition, intelligence, connections, and so on (many of which, of course, Okwonga has). Moderate though it may appear to be, to see such patterns is to believe in a conspiracy theory: it is a desire to seek design, and intent, rather than chance and free will. It is often neat but always reductive.

Eton is a place which welcomed him, valued him, made him a prefect, put him in a house with a housemaster who Okwonga clearly idolises (“I am grateful for the outstanding job he did”), and provided him with a world-class education. In return he absolves the school of creating its worst egotists and bullies (“My school never creates [them] they arrive there with the core of their egos fully formed”); and goes so far as to say that the school is a place that “has such a reverence for its students, which continues long after we leave”. This is the language of deep affection for an institution that helped him immeasurably. 

Which makes the almost predictable criticism of Eton as having a stranglehold on power so lacking in conviction. It reads as if Okwonga is going through the motions of attacking his old school, preferring instead ad hominem attacks on the Prime Minister’s “fact-free bluster”. The old targets, the amoral Tories who introduced austerity and backed Brexit, are trotted out, each of them caricatured as irresponsible and out of touch with their country, but products, too, of the same school he spends so much of this book eulogising. 

So which Eton is it to be? His safe space or the engine of privilege, because he can’t have it both ways. He has to decide, but repeatedly finds he cannot, weakening the book beyond repair. Perhaps he’s too nice to cut those old school ties, or, more likely, he is too politically astute to choose between his old loyalties and the new, emerging allegiances.

At one point, long after he has left Eton, a friend compares Okwonga to a high-performance car, “where everything is in order … but the car just won’t start”. Unintentionally, and again displaying a surprising lack of self-awareness for someone so intelligent and sensitive, this criticism could be applied to this oddly inert tale of having access to everywhere but belonging nowhere.

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