The Importance of Being Eton by Nick Fraser

Not good with bra-straps
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The Independent Culture

David Cameron's educational provenance aside, any addition to the rows and rows of Etoniana requires some sort of justification. So much is written about this single school that even its Provost's wife chides the author of this book "for wanting to write still more". In the first chapter, Nick Fraser sets out his stall, assuring us that "this is not an act of self-expiation or therapy" but an attempt "to describe how it is that one school ... came to find a distinctive place in the national imagination".

This is not an uninteresting question, but neither is it so interesting that it requires no leavening human interest. Unlike Premier league footballers and reality TV contestants, less well-known people must rely on candour and good writing to make their personal narratives worth reading. Fraser is short on both. His book stands at the junction between memoir, history and cultural critique, darting in and out of each, often chaotically, without advancing far enough into any of them.

Those expecting a guided tour through Eton's picturesque rituals will be disappointed. Unlike Tim Card, whose elegantly magisterial Eton Renewed (John Murray, 1994) and Eton Established (John Murray, 2001) do the job well, Fraser writes confusingly for those not initiated into the mysteries he describes. He concerns himself little with the school's intellectual life, explains its curious customs poorly and once describes Eton as an "up-against-it cash-strapped institution" - which demonstrably it is not.

As a piece of cultural comment, the book rings oddly hollow too. Fraser's present-day Etonians are hilarious cut-outs from a Jilly Cooper novel, who say things like "Does one go on wanking all one's life?" and get married "chummily with the sister of a friend".

It soon becomes clear that if Fraser has something vital to add to the discussion of Eton's supposed cultural influence, he can't quite decide what it is. Where the book's interest lies is in trying to work out what, exactly, Nick Fraser is trying to do, and here I think he has not been quite candid with us.

Shortly before his categorical denial in chapter one ("this is not an act of self-expiation or therapy") he says, perhaps more truthfully, "Something of the place must inhabit me, otherwise I wouldn't feel impelled to write about it." Impelled is a strong word; and the book is full of Fraser's demons, not always felicitously expressed: "Eton never left me, which is the same as saying that some piece of Eton remained with me long after I left."

After about 100 pages or so, wondering where all this is going, clarity begins to dawn when Fraser refers to "promiscuous homosexuals" for the third time. Eton has presumably produced its share of promiscuous heterosexuals over five and a half centuries; these are not mentioned. Instead, buried deep within an otherwise tedious collection of anecdotes and musings, is a painfully confessed story of an unsatisfactory sexual awakening.

Fraser seems most candid when he is speaking, allegedly, of the behaviour of others: "It is thus... telling themselves that they aren't queer even as they perform homosexual acts, that Etonians receive their sexual initiation."

This broad generalisation is noteworthy, and its lack of specificity is typical. Is Fraser talking about all Etonians? Surely not. His friends? Himself? He doesn't tell us, but proceeds to overcompensate as though he has inadvertently betrayed himself. There follows an encounter with a Parisian prostitute, whose sole purpose is to say "On dit que les anglais aiment les hommes. Chez toi ce n'est évidemment pas le cas." The experience is, however, "unremarkable" and finally, not wholly to this reader's surprise, a "not unhandsome" English master appears on the scene: "I do understand that he's attracted to me, though I am not sure why, or what he wants... I don't evade this interest."

With the self-rationalisation of a character in a novel by E M Forster, Fraser decides that "Moral thoughts were what he [the English Master] offered, good ideas about how to live honestly" - and he pursues these worthy goals to a "dank Irish hotel", where he "consummates" the affair despite himself, apparently feeling "neither love, nor desire, nor any real affection".

"I didn't even think much whether I was homosexual or bisexual," he muses, adding proudly (if enigmatically) that "So much less-than-successful business with bra straps gave me an answer to that question."

Fraser's less than frank memoir of successful schooldays, failed marriages and thwarted ambition refuses to supply the reader with the answer to that question, or to many others. His unfocused discussion of "Being Eton" adds little to what is already known and makes the whole, as Cyril Connolly put it, just what a book about Eton should not be: "a very indifferent and incomplete work of criticism and a very evasive and partial autobiography".