‘My plan was to fail the Harrow entrance and be sent to the local day school – by bus, with girls on it’
Simon relives schoolboy dreams
WITH A BACKGROUND in the arts, my family didn’t belong to any particular social class – we had the vowels if not the income to pass for upper middle, but if Dad’s play was a flop we had to drop down a peg or two. When he was declared bankrupt, my brother’s name was instantly struck off the Eton register of candidates. Dad threw a hissy fit (long before they’d been invented) and got him reinstated, a saintly godfather coughed up the fees. It was the perfect school for Hugo, camp and laissez-faire – they could make a Tory leader or a poet laureate of anybody. You can tell an Old Etonian by the gaudiness of his socks and the way he crosses the street, heedless of traffic – they are the gold medallists of jay-walking.
Like an understudy, I was always keen to walk in my brother’s footsteps, waiting my turn to inherit his glory. Eton sounded pretty cool to me, like Butlin’s without the red coats, but their pass mark was beyond my reach. I hadn’t taken to education at prep school – algebra, brawn, communal lavatories etc. My plan was to bypass puberty and go straight to adulthood, where I’d be an overnight success at something yet to be decided. There was talk of Gordonstoun, where I would be ‘made a man of ’, like the chap tossing a caber on the porridge packet. No thank you. Or Stowe, which was then bottom of the nice-but-dim league, a mere spawning ground for antique dealers. I was quietly confident that I could fail the common entrance to Harrow so that I’d be sent to the local day school – by bus, with girls on it. My plan was thwarted by my kindly headmaster who made me captain of a one-off school team and wrote to Harrow’s admissions office, ‘Simon was the captain of our unbeaten football eleven.’ He could have been done under the Trade Descriptions Act. I scraped in and my parents had to sell an Alan Lowndes painting to pay for the first year.
The Eton/harrow rivalry was intense – the summer before I arrived, some Etonian pranksters had painted Floreat Etona in weedkiller on the headmaster’s lawn and my loyalty was divided. Things weren’t helped when my brother, freshly released from Eton, came to visit me wearing drainpipes and a black polo neck. I was called in by the head of house. ‘Who was that beatnik you were walking down the street with?’ ‘My brother.’ ‘He had his arm round you.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why?’ ‘He’s my brother.’ ‘What?’ ‘That’s how we always walk.’ ‘Was he in this house?’ ‘No.’ ‘Which house then?’ ‘He went to Eton.’ ‘ETON! Christ on a bike.’ Suddenly I was the Kim Philby of Harrow.
Simon plays Justin Elliott in The Archers