Christina Patterson: Lessons from a Russian blonde

In Russia, little words in ears keep most things rolling merrily along. But it works pretty well here, too
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The Independent Online

It's possible, I suppose, that, a 25-year old leggy Russian blonde, who may or may not be a spy, and who enjoys being photographed in bikinis and grass skirts, was the best qualified candidate for the post of researcher to the Lib Dem MP for Portsmouth South. It's possible that the MP in question, who looks like a hobbit who's been given those hormones that prolong the lives of mice, and whose surprisingly successful seduction techniques apparently include the regular mailing (to adult women, though a lot younger than him, obviously) of teddy bears, advertised the post repeatedly, but failed to find anyone to fit the bill.

It's possible that he then felt obliged to take a research trip to Moscow, to see if a population of 142 million could succeed where a population of 60 million had failed. And it's possible that he then felt a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, and so when the 25-year-old blonde, who went to the same university as Putin, which could have come in handy next time we wanted to make a £15m presentation to those nice men at Fifa, presented herself, and said she would just love to be a researcher to a British MP, he said that he was hoping to find someone a bit more his own age, and a bit more in his league in the looks department, but that he supposed he could make an exception on this occasion, and she would do.

The leggy blonde comes from somewhere called Mineralnye Vody. Her family is, apparently, well off and well connected – and well versed enough in British culture to know that the little tug of a string, or a little word in an ear or, in extremis, a very short skirt can, when it comes to the launching or development of a career, work wonders. It certainly works in their own country, where little words in ears, ideally accompanied by hefty sacks of cash, keep most things rolling merrily along.

But it works pretty well here, too. If you want to work as a bin man, or a lollilop lady, then you'll probably have to fill out an application form and tick all kinds of boxes about your pigmentation and preferences in bed, and then you'll have to compete against all kinds of other people who have also filled out the forms and ticked the boxes, but if you want to work in what we like to call creative industries, because we don't really have the other ones any more, you don't have to bother.

If you want to work in advertising, or architecture, or publishing, or design, or journalism, then the best thing to do, according to a new report by the Social Market Foundation, is to know someone in it. Then you don't have to bother with all that form-filling, and box ticking, and competing with people who are just like you, which, as anyone who's done it can tell you, is tiring and boring. What you need, according to the author of the report, is contacts. "Word-of-mouth recruitment is more common than formal recruitment methods", he says. It's also quicker, cheaper and much more fun.

In this, as so many other things, our Prime Minister can lead the way. It was, after all, a word in an ear (from someone at Buckingham Palace, apparently, to someone at Conservative Central Office) that set him on the path to Downing Street. By some extraordinary coincidence, the world of British politics turned out to be teeming with his chums. Before you could say Jack Robinson, or perhaps Jeremy Hunt, the country, and the Treasury, and the country's capital city, were all being run by people who had known each other at university, and not just at university but in a dining club! Which you had to be invited to join! And for which you had to wear an outfit that cost the same as a year's tuition fees used to cost before they came in to government and decided to triple them! Such a coincidence, you'd hardly believe it!

The even bigger coincidence was that when the boys from the dining club moved into Downing Street (though one of them didn't actually move in, because it wasn't quite what he was used to), and had to make a deal with the party whose MP employed the leggy blonde, which was a bit galling, quite frankly, because the party, like the MP, was a bit of a joke, they discovered another amazing coincidence. The members of the joke party were just like the members of their own party! Nearly all of them had been to public school and Oxbridge! They had loads of friends in common. In fact, they had loads of everything in common.

Nearly 60 per cent of the Cabinet went to public schools. By strange coincidence, about the same percentage of journalists did, too. And people working in publishing. And, weirdly, pop acts currently in the charts. That's quite a lot of noise from a small percentage of the 7 per cent of the population who go to private schools.

How does it happen? Do their parents present them, on their birth, with a lovely little leather-bound book full of the phone numbers of people they went to school with? Do they sing them lullabies with subliminal messages telling them that they can, in later life, however stupid, lazy, or unmotivated, pursue whatever career they like? Do they add a little coda to the birds and the bees conversation to the effect that when the time is right, and little George or Boris quite fancies becoming a politician or a columnist, just say the word and they'll call Harry, or Bunty, and of course the London pad will be at their disposal if they have to do a little stint of work experience first? Do they?

I have no idea how any of this happens. I only know that when I went to university, and met people who'd been to private school, I was terrified. For one week alone, they spoke to those of us who hadn't, and then apartheid kicked in. Pink, shiny, and strangely unblemished, they strode around as if they owned the place, which, in a way, they did. At weekends, they sped off (in cars! on a student grant!) to stay at each other's parents' houses. I don't know what happened when they went to the careers office, or if they went to the careers office, but when I went, and was told that journalism was very hard to get into, I skulked off and thought that I'd probably better not try.

After 15 years of doing other things, and reviewing for papers, including this one, on top of very full-time jobs, and having hardly ever met a journalist, let alone one I could ring up and suggest meeting "for a chat", I did. It still scares the living daylights out of me writing for a national paper, even though I do it several times a week. It still seems to me a privilege beyond my wildest imaginings. It still shakes me when I meet people who seem to think it's a right.

In his report on poverty, published last week, Frank Field said that "children's life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life", which depends largely on "family background" and "parental education". The truth, of course, is that everyone's life chances depend largely on family background and education, We can't ban the Bullingdon, or stop parents issuing those leather-bound address books, but until we do a better job for the 93 per cent of our population that didn't all know each other's brothers at school, we might as well drop the word "fair" from all government propaganda and toss the Equality Law on the bonfire of the quangos.

Yesterday, Michael Gove praised the education system in Finland. I think he must have forgotten to mention that Finland doesn't have private schools.       

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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