School for snobs

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The Independent Online
So Hobson's choice was a hooker. As a result, Peter Hobson, headmaster of Charterhouse, found himself on the front pages of the Times, the Telegraph, the Express, Mail, Mirror and Sun. The 50-year-old classicist was the most famous educationist in Britain - a short head in front of Anthony Verity of Dulwich College, accused this week of harassing a secretary.

It is rare indeed that the organs of high and low culture are so unanimous in their estimation of the significance of a story. The tribulations of Michael Barrymore barely scratched the consciousness of the Telegraph, while obliterating all else for Mirror readers. Sun lovers have been denied full details of the Northern Ireland peace process. But Mr Hobson is a different matter.

Why is the tale of the beak and the tart so universally seductive? Partly because of its delicious incongruity. Can it really be the case that this distinguished scholar told the Mirror, when confronted with the testimony of the lady concerned, that he was "gobsmacked"? Or that he admitted to her that she "turned him on"? Not even the most modern translations of Catullus or Petronius contain such demotic terms.

Then there is good old schadenfreude. Old Boy Sir Ronald Millar, speechwriter to Maggie, was quoted likening the Charterhouse drama to Greek tragedy, in which a heroic central figure is doomed by his inherent flaws. Perhaps somewhere there is a lost play by Sophocles in which a prophet is brought down by a lady of the polis, to the groans of a Chorus of governors and prefects.

Hypocrisy, too, is in the mix. As headmaster, Mr Hobson gained limited fame for expelling a couple of pupils (of opposite sex) found naked in bed together after a school dance. Pedantically (and I think perversely), he spared two others who were also entwined, but fully clothed. And then this arbiter of morality ...

Which brings us to the nookie. Once we get over the shock of vice in Godalming and Guildford (nice to know you don't have to go up to town for everything), "busty" call-girl Sally, aka Mia, aka (Sigmund, are you listening?) "Mrs Hatch", reveals all to us. Mr Hobson arrived at her flat, she claimed, "eager for sex". Wow! What a way to arrive at a prostitute's flat! Next he'll be turning up at restaurants "eager for food", or - panting - at Ikea "eager for sofas".

But all these factors - hubris, hypocrisy, curiosity and voyeurism - do not quite explain the prominence that the story has received. One more element was required. To guess what it was you only have to ask: would Cecil Nubbins, head of Mossop sixth-form college, nabbed for kerb- crawling in Halifax, have suffered more than a splash in Friday's Batley and Spen Argus? Of course not. What turned the rather sad Hobson story into a national scandal was snobbery.

Charterhouse is a "major" public school. Its old boys are called "Old Carthusians" and number in their ranks Dimblebys major and minor, Lord Wakeham, Telegraph editor Max Hastings and Times columnist Lord Rees- Mogg. The head of Charterhouse, while having absolutely no significance for the vast majority of us, sups at the same table as the elite of Britain. They are very interested in what he does.

And we go along with it, taking them at their own self-estimation. So just this week someone was described to me as "handsome, intelligent and an Old Etonian", as if the third part of this description connoted anything more than particularly wealthy (and rather snobbish) parents. In yesterday's Telegraph someone had the bright idea of contrasting Prince William's new school (Eton) with Euan Blair's (London Oratory). Twice as much space was devoted to Eton and its bizarre customs and practices. London Oratory was not described at all, except to say that it possessed a pounds 2.5m arts centre. "Eton it is not, but the Eton of London state schools it could certainly claim to be" opines the author of the article.

Bah. We'll know we've finally made it into the sunlit uplands of the classless society when a Telegraph article talks of "Eton: the Mossop of the private sector".