An anarchist's guide to Eton

Surely not? Did a pupil at Britain's most famous public school really exchange his top hat for a balaclava and bunk off to put in a spot of rioting at the May Day anti-capitalist demo? If he did, it would be no surprise to Old Etonian the Honourable David Thomas (Oppidan Scholar 1972-1976). The place has always been a breeding ground for subversive coves who were born to put the class back into class war

The Sun, God bless it, was shocked. "ETON BOY IS RIOT THUG" screamed the front-page headline. It was followed by a three-page story about a 17-year-old Etonian, Matthew MacDonald, who was arrested during the May Day riots for his alleged role in the now-infamous attack by anti-capitalist demonstrators on a McDonald's burger joint.

"There was a time when an Eton boy wouldn't know what a burger bar was," declared The Sun's leader, which added: "You'd think going to Britain's poshest school would teach him how to behave. How times change."

Er... not quite. I am an Old Etonian and I can tell you without any fear of contradiction that we've always been an unruly lot. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Etonians regularly ran riot, rallying to the cry of "Floreat seditio" ("Let sedition flourish"), a parody of the school motto "Floreat Etona".

In 1783, they took advantage of the chaos caused by a teachers' strike to chase the headmaster, Dr Davies, through the school, before running amok, smashing windows, destroying furniture, tearing up the head-master's papers and burning the whipping block upon which they themselves were frequently flogged. In the words of Christopher Hollis, the author of the school's definitive history: "Barbaric anarchy reigned."

Two centuries later, Eton is still the perfect breeding-ground for the modern rioter. And here are 10 reasons why, starting with a couple of basic, physical criteria:

1 Etonians are big, fit and indifferent to pain

The average British male is around five-foot-nine. Well, I'm six-one and I was small at Eton. The place was packed with gigantic products of multi-generational privilege, whose forefathers ate better than poorer folk, lived in healthier surroundings and married physically fitter partners. In recent decades, mass prosperity may have narrowed those class ad-vantages, but if you were to walk through the streets of Eton, then through the nearest comprehensive in Slough, the contrast in the physical appearance of the two sets of pupils would still be perfectly evident.

Today, that difference probably comes down to fitness, rather than feeding. State-educated children receive progressively less PE and are fatter, flabbier and less active than ever before. But Etonians - like most public-schoolboys - still play sports, and they do so virtually every day.

Further, the sports they play emphasise physical strength, coupled with a willingness to receive or inflict pain. Relatively few Etonians play the terminally lunatic Wall Game, which essentially involves thrashing around in the mud for hours at a time doing nothing but bash other boys. But hundreds of pupils are chained like galley-slaves to the oars of the school's countless rowing VIIIs, thereby creating hugely-muscled, awesomely fit specimens like Matt Pinsent, Steve Redgrave's Olympic gold medal-winning crewmate. And rowing hurts. God, how it hurts. If you can survive a serious boat-race, a spot of police brutality seems like a nice day out by comparison.

Of course, it's all very well having the appropriate physical characteristics to thrive in a conflict situation. But they're no good without the correct mental attitudes, too. No problem:

2 Etonians love smashing things up

As anyone who has ever seen an Oxbridge dining-club in full flow could tell you, the upper classes believe that hooliganism doesn't count, so long as you write a cheque afterwards. If you have a few too many and smash up a restaurant, then a quiet word in the manager's ear and a few bob from a Coutts's account will make any trouble disappear.

Many Etonian rituals involve random acts of violence and destruction. The elections of boys into institutions like Pop, the school's prefects, were traditionally followed by initiation ceremonies involving savage assaults upon the winning candidate's body and possessions. Things may have calmed down in the 20-odd years since I left, but I suspect the underlying principles hold good.

The result of all this can be seen in the absolute confidence with which Lord Melchett - the executive director of Greenpeace and an old Etonian like his fellow-green the Hon Sir Jonathon Porritt - set about mowing down a field of GM maize last year. Middle-class suburban types might have thought twice about wreaking havoc on a scientific test-site. But Melchy dived right in, helped by a few more old school traits, to wit:

3 Etonians are arrogant

4 Etonians are ruthless

5 Etonians are monumentally screwed-up

6 Etonians don't mind wearing silly clothes in public

To be a full-on rebel against society requires a certainty that you know something that the blind masses do not (arrogance). It requires a willingness to impose your viewpoint, irrespective of the effects upon anyone else, such as terrified day-trippers huddled in McDonald's (ruthlessness). It almost certainly requires a deep sense of personal injury or victimisation, which is why you hate society so much in the first place. And then you express all of these pent-up emotions with deliberately ugly clothes that spit in the face of society's sartorial norms.

Now, do I really need to debate the proposition "Etonians are arrogant"? Didn't think so. Deep in the soul of every Etonian is the knowledge that he was educated at the world's most famous school. The Sun would not run a front-page headline "MARLBURIAN IS RIOT THUG". Even "Harrovian" wouldn't do it. "Eton boy" is the only one that counts. Even the most rebellious Etonian, when confronted with a member of the Metropolitan Police, would find it hard to stop himself thinking: "Who is this nasty, common little man? And how dare he lay a hand on me?"

As for ruthlessness, that's a given, too. The biggest single error made by Eton's ideological opponents is to presume that the school is a strawberry- swilling paradise for indolent toffs. Wrong. It is relentlessly competitive in every aspect of its activities. Boys are listed, graded and ranked against one another all the time. They compete for everything and are expected to win.

The ruling class has not sustained itself in power for several centuries because it is soft, but because it is endlessly prepared to do whatever is required to retain its position.

Yet there is a price to pay for this ruthlessness. Deep in the core of every Etonian is a secret well of pain. These are boys who have been separated from their parents at an early age and sent away to school. Upon arriving at Eton, they have discovered within days, even hours, that it is absolutely vital to maintain a façade of absolute confidence, no matter what they feel inside.

I remember, years ago, reading a piece by my school contemporary Craig Brown, who described how inadequate he felt in the face of all the confident, super-cool boys by whom he was surrounded. My first reaction was to identify totally with what he had written. My second was to think: "But Craig Brown was incredibly cool." He'd simply hidden his sense of inadequacy. We all do. And all of us who have any conscience at all are troubled by our outrageous privilege. This, we are told, was Matthew MacDonald's problem, and it's one with which I sympathise.

In the years before I went to Eton, my parents lived in Peru, where I had been shocked by the contrasts between appalling poverty and untramelled wealth. On my first morning at the school, I was woken by a so-called "boys' maid" with the words: "Good morning, Mr Thomas, it's time to get up." I was deeply troubled by her apparent subservience. I never became an anarchist as a result, but I can easily see how one might.

As for the clothes, well, once you've spent five years parading around like a penguin in a tail-coat and stiff collar, where's the problem in a pink Mohican, or crusty braids, or the odd malodorous parka? All of which leads me to another surprising conclusion:

7 Etonians are independent thinkers

Matthew MacDonald was the founder of Eton's Orwell Society, a left-wing group that attracted up to 200 boys to talks given by radical speakers. Note, in the first place, that the society was named after another Etonian, George Orwell. Note, too, that the school allowed the meetings to take place.

This is no surprise. Eton works on a simple principle: provide boys conform on the surface, they can be as independent as they like underneath. So there are endless, petty little rules about ones uniform, but no restrict-ions at all upon ones opinions.

Tam Dalyell's perennial refusal to toe the Labour line is typical of an Etonian. Boys expect to be able to think what they like. They grow up believing that there are no limits to their horizons, that anything is possible if they put their mind to it, that success is an entitlement. Which leads me, finally, to:

8 Etonians are ambitious

9 Etonians are trendy

10 Etonians get everywhere

Fashion, like physical size, is a function of privilege. It is a deceitful myth to suppose that trends rise upwards from poor to rich. Quite the reverse. The first people to catch on to new ideas are those whose wealth enables them to have disposable time, disposable money and unlimited access to new places, people and things. What's more, the rich have the resources then to exploit new ideas or trends to their own personal profit.

As evidence of this I give you Jay Jopling, by far the most influential and successful young British art-dealer of the past decade: an Old Etonian. James Palumbo, the boss of the Ministry of Sound club empire: an Old Etonian. Brent Hoberman, the co-founder of lastminute.com and the embodiment of the internet economy: an Old Etonian.

If anti-capitalist rioting has become the New Big Thing, I take it for granted that there will be an Etonian presence somewhere about the place. And now, I hope, you know why.

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