Tales of the City: An old-school cultural revolution

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The Independent Online

It's an image straight out of J G Ballard's Empire of the Sun - a line of small boys in English public school uniform, complete with blazer, cap and half-mast socks, at large in the teeming streets of Shanghai. But it will soon be a commonplace sight once the first Dulwich College International School opens in the old Chinese city in late August. The school will necessarily cater, at first, only for the children of British expats because, by current law, the Beijing authorities ban Chinese school kids from studying with foreigners from the decadent West. The Dulwich College groundbreakers are gambling on the likelihood that the law will change - and since Chinese parents spend a cool £22bn a year on educating their children, it's a hugely lucrative gamble.

Spearheading the Shanghai operation is Colin Niven, once Tony Blair's teacher at Fettes College, who recently retired as headmaster of Alleyn's, the Dulwich school that all my children attend. I've met Mr Niven several times and all I can say is, the Chinese are dead lucky.

If a more genial, wise or enterprising ambassador for the British private-school system exists, I'd be amazed. On Tuesday, Dr Niven told The Times: "The school is genuinely idealistic and it is sincerely not a money-grabbing operation," which is, I'm sure, both true and creditable - but I wonder what are the ideals of Britishness, and of the posh-school ethic, that the Chinese will watch their children absorbing?

All scholars must walk through the local streets around the school with their mouths open, listening to a techno-beat cacophony through a headpiece attached to white wires.

Boys will pretend to sing the National Anthem on the head of state's birthday, while mouthing the words to football chants involving ambulances, footballers' wives and anal sex.

School fees, which once seemed quite reasonable, will rise by 700 per cent over two years. A curt letter will explain that this is to pay for a thermonuclear reactor to be built in the science block, circa 2009. Boys will be required, on pain of severe punishment, to make banoffie pie and upside-down cake in Food Technology lessons, as a test of their commitment to heterosexuality. All scholars will be expected to join a school cadet force, drill in khaki uniforms and boots, and learn how to ill-treat Arab prisoners.

Boys of eighth grade and above will supply their own copies of FHM, Maxim, Front, Big Ones, Hot 'n' Horny, Rustler, Foxy Doxies etc in the locker-room area. The school does not accept responsibility for any physical trauma that may result from the perusal of these magazines.

On the sports field, the modern scholar signals his understanding of the rules of sporting etiquette by carrying the Stanley knife in the left sock. Free leisure time after prep will be devoted to lively philosophical discussions, e.g. "How Fit is Avril Lavigne?" and "How Many Innocent Passers-By Can You Kill in True Crime: Streets of LA?"

Parents will be asked to shell out previously unmentioned £4,995.60 per child for an educational trip to the Nevskaroski factory, Siberia (bring warm drink, biscuit, snack and pullover).

On Founder's Day, parents will be expected to dress in formal garb, and be expected to make impromptu but heartfelt speech about benefits of classical education, and run the tombola stall for four hours....

Street cred takes on a new meaning

"It's an exercise in bearing witness to the joy and pain of the universe," said a spokesman by the name of Senso Gauntt. "A glimpse of living on the edge of creation." Those less visionary than Mr Gauntt might wonder if his line of work is giving him delusions of grandeur. For he's rhapsodising about the new fad of the "street retreat" in which well-heeled but enervated middle-class Americans play at being a tramp for a weekend, in pre-distressed clothes, reeking shoes and infested hair. They'll find a fresh perspective on life, identity and self-empowerment. They may, in addition, lose weight by having nothing to eat for three days. You have to pay Mr Gauntt's Peacemaker Centre $150 to take part - and can apply now for the first London "retreats" in June, costing £150.

Everything about this fatuous initiative repels me - the play-acting, the phoney transcendence, the unoriginality, the fact that "style" magazines like Tatler carry a beggar-for-a-day feature from time to time, the casual depriving of real beggars of their meagre dole - but I choked on the list of recommendations to aspirant bums: "Do not wear any jewellery, including earrings and watches" they advise, before counselling against bringing your mobile phone and a jolly paperback to read. Sage advice. We don't want to look too much like we're lying on the sands of the Costa Smeralda, do we?

A grave incident

Astonishing to see that grave-robbing is back in the news. A brace of Scottish adolescents have been accused of the 100-year-old crime of "violating a sepulchre" after burgling the last resting-place of a 17th-century nobleman and using his skull as a humorous drama prop.

Teenagers, eh? It's 175 years since the death (by hanging) of Burke, the Irish chancer who robbed graves with his confederate Hare in order to sell the cadavers to local Edinburgh hospitals for dissection and, when they ran out of corpses, turned to murdering down-and-outs, in alarmingly strict adherence to the laws of supply and demand. I trust the modern miscreants aren't trying to revive an old Scots tradition.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a cemetery in Santiago is selling coffins that feature a panic button - or a least a sensor that detects any movement inside a coffin after burial. It's supposedly to stop anyone being buried alive (does this happen a lot in Chile?) but is obviously also good for discouraging burglars. It's only a matter of time before cemeteries carry a sign over the gate saying: "Warning: CCTV cameras in operation".