an open letter to william

REAL LIVES This week, Prince William becomes Eton's most famous new boy. Here, an old boy gives him some friendly advice
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Dear Prince William

On Wednesday you start at your new school. It's a nerve-racking moment for anybody and perhaps slightly more so for you. But I'm sure you and Eton will get on like a castle on fire. The two of you have a lot in common. You're both world-famous. Everybody has heard of you, and a lot is written about you, and yet hardly anyone gets the story right. So forget whatever you may have heard or read about the place, and allow a fellow Etonian to how you what it's really like. When I arrived at Eton, you weren't born, but what's a decade or two in an institution that's been going for 555 years?

1. It's not a snobbish place. Or if it is, the snobbery has little to do with class. In my year, there were a couple of viscounts and one minor member of your family. The titles were recorded in the school list, but counted for nothing. Boys were far more respected for being good at something - sport, above all, but also acting, or painting, or even exams. Once you're inside, the school is mysteriously meritocratic. It's a competitive place, at times cruelly so (results of internal exams are read out in front of your whole year); but there is no upmanship about background. This isn't to say that a prince will be treated like anyone else. There was no boy in my day whom the others would have heard of before he got there. But the place won't change its character for one boy, even if he is a future king - more likely, it will be anxious to show how unimpressed it is.

2. All you need to do is be yourself - the hardest advice to follow, as Oscar Wilde said, and harder still at Eton, where the air contains dangerous levels of self-consciousness. The school encourages individuality, but reserves the right to leave its stamp on you. I can still tell when Eton is on half-term, because clumps of lanky boys spring up in Kensington High Street and the King's Road, one hand planted in their pockets, the other running through their luxuriant hair, talking in deep mumbly voices and trying to look as if they know London better than they do.

3. You won't have to wear a top hat. The picture most often used to illustrate articles about the school is an evocative shot from the Thirties - two boys in top hats with some wide-eyed urchins. The boys in the picture were at Harrow. You do have to wear a tailcoat, black waistcoat and pinstripe trousers, and a stiff collar with a silly strip of white cotton which masquerades as a tie. You will first hate this, then hardly notice it, then develop a sneaking affection for it - at least it's not as boring as other school uniforms. And finally you'll be proud of it, because it will reflect any eminence you may have achieved - bow ties for house captains or people running things, silver waistcoat buttons for the Top 20 brains. If you hit the jackpot and get elected to the prefects' society called Pop, it's grey dog's-tooth trousers and any waistcoat you like. Swanning around in this garb, you will feel like a prince.

4. You will be amazed by the teaching

Or some of it. At prep school, you will have spent many hours half listening to amiable buffers and malleable beginners banging on about rift valleys, or Wat Tyler, or the genitive of rex. Eton still has a few masters, or "beaks", who are like that. But the younger ones have doctorates (that's a higher form of university degree, which your father gets given but other people have to work for), and a real passion for their subject, and a scholarly book half-written on their Apple Mac. Some will be good enough to pass on their enthusiasm to you and your friends, however bored you may be when you start. And you will find that even Latin can be fun.

On the other hand, many of them are not very good. When I was at Eton, there were five masters whose nickname was Wetty. One of them taught me German, for O-level (an ancient form of GCSE), taken from scratch in a year. He drilled us superbly - nearly all of us got As. And then we gave up German, because it had been so dull.

5 You won't have to row. In five years I never did any boating, jolly or otherwise (nor did I use the word jolly, except when singing the song). As in a lot of things, they give you a choice: in summer it's rowing or cricket, or, with a modicum of forethought, lying in a shady corner reading the NME.

6 You will be surprised by the size of the place. Well, you may not. But it is 10 times the size of Ludgrove (which I can picture vividly, from all the times my school lost there at games) and this has shaped its character. The place is so big, it encourages you to do your own thing. There were boys in my year that I still haven't met. A young beak I knew, now a housemaster, told us that the three distinguishing features of the school were having your own room from day one, being able to choose your tutor for the sixth form and the fact that the prefects were self-electing. (This means that they are self-satisfied, but being Etonians, they probably would be anyway.) The most vital of these is having your own room. It gives you privacy, and you won't need to be told the value of that.

7 You may have heard tales of flogging, fagging, and homosexuality. Fagging was abolished in 1980. Beating by boys had been banned before that, and beating by beaks is now very rare. As for homosexuality, I never saw any real sign of it, but that may have been because I was chubby and bespectacled.

8 You'll have met the headmaster, a kind, rather tense New Zealander called John Lewis. But you can forget about him, until you're in the top half of the school or in hot water. The key figure is your housemaster. Mine was a big character; I liked him so much that I still see him. Some of the others were the opposite. I don't know your housemaster, Dr Andrew Gailey, but your father is a friend of the headmaster who appointed him, Dr Eric Anderson, so he's unlikely to be a duffer. It's a bad sign if he bothers with the pettier rules, like the one that says you can't have a "white triangle" of shirt showing between your waistcoat and your trousers.

9 You will be leading a life of privilege, but not of luxury. Your bed will look as if it's just been discharged from hospital. The food won't be that good.

10 You may have got the impression that life at Eton is unlike life at other schools. There is some truth in this: it's unusually old, beautiful (a chapel fit for King's, the river winding by), and success-oriented (it came fourth in this year's A-level league table for private schools). But the things that most concern you in the next five years will be the things that concern any teenage boy - friends, football, shaving, girls (bit of a shortage of them, I'm afraid), GCSEs, spots, clothes, parents, CDs, A-levels, and trying not to get caught. Eton is nothing compared with adolescence.

11 Eton has its share of unhappiness. Some parents send their sons there because they think it's the best school in the country, rather than the best school for them. If a boy is not the schooly type, or, not good at anything, it's a hard place to be. You don't look as if you need worry on that score. But even the schooly ones may find it tough for a year or two. You've been a big boy in a small pool, and now it will be made excessively clear that you're a small boy in a big pool. This has its advantages - no more of that responsibility they give you at prep school, which turns nice 12-year-olds into Nazis. But on the whole, Eton is much more fun in the sixth form. You're no longer cooped up in your house from 6.15 every evening, you can go to the school pub (Tap) for a beer, a blind eye is turned to smoking (tobacco, that is), and you can sit in your tutor's study and pretend you're at university. You also get the full run of the facilities, which are excellent - two modern theatres, a school of design, a fortnightly magazine - though you may find your genes pushing you more in the direction of the Eton Beagles.

12 One drawback of an Eton education is that we're not allowed to forget it. If Etonians work with each other, we carry our school selves with us. If we work with other people, they seem to know where we went to school without our saying so. If we get into trouble, it's OLD ETONIAN ACCUSED OF GEMS FRAUD. You, at least, will not suffer from this. Instead, the school will suffer from it. Eton, long famous in its own right, will now be widely referred to as the school you go to. Don't be surprised if it's a little miffed.

If you do find the going hard, remember one thing. You could be 600 miles away, in a place that looks like Colditz, wearing khaki shorts, taking cold showers, clinging to mountainsides in the name of your grandfather's awards scheme and making friends you will never see again. Say what you like about Eton, at least it's not Gordonstoun.

All the best,

An Old Etonian

8 The writer's schooldays at Eton ended in the early 1980s