One of Us, One of Them

Two unplanned reads, which fit neither into my #WITMonth nor in my #20BooksofSummer. Instead, they were an impulse loan from the library. Although they are very different: one written in 1932, the other in 2020, they both address (indirectly or directly) the issue of class and prejudice, insiders/outsiders in British society.

Graham Greene: Stamboul Train

This was one of Greene’s lighter reads or ‘entertainments’, which he wrote with the stated hope of having it adapted for film (which happened soon after in 1934). In other words, he very cynically set out to write a bestseller, full of action and aventure, plot-heavy, but with enigmatic, beguiling characters. Of course, this being Greene, he couldn’t resist bringing in issues of success and belonging, guilt and failure into the story.

The plot itself is pretty simple: a disparate group of passengers get on the Orient Express from Ostend to Istanbul, a journey which took several days back in the early 1930s. As they collide both physically and metaphorically on the train, some of them will find their lives changed forever, while others end up none the wiser or better. The good do not always get what they deserve, nor do the wicked get punished.

The insider/outsider theme is particularly strong, with constant disparaging references made to ‘the Jew’ Carleton Myatt, the richest man on that train, who is on his way to Istanbul to check into a possible problem of fraud in the family business. I found the frequency of him being singled out slightly distressing, although one might argue that Greene is showing how easily people revert to stereotypes (nowadays he might have included a black man). Other passengers too are outsiders in their own, perhaps less obvious way: the lesbian journalist Mabel Warren and her bisexual, opportunistic companion Janet Pardoe; the Cockney travel writer Quin Savory who likes to drop his aitches ostentatiously and diss the modernist Bloomsbury set; the tight-lipped schoolmaster Richard John, who seems to have a very strong foreign accent (and is in fact a Serbian revolutionary); the fat Austrian burglar who gets on the train in Vienna and is prepared to do anything to avoid being caught by the police. None of them really fit the profile of the quintessential Englishman, except perhaps the melancholy Anglican priest attracted to Catholicism Opie or the lascivious Mr Peters who doesn’t let the small detail of travelling with his wife get in the way of groping other women.

There is a sneer and a sadness about the way the characters are described which makes me think that Greene was both of his era but also critical of it. Let’s not forget that Greene was part of the establisment, from a wealthy brewer’s family, the son of a headmaster of a boarding school, but that he was bullied to the point of having a nervous breakdown. Of course, virtually all of the categories of people he describes on that train journey were soon to be persecuted within the Third Reich.

Musa Okwonga: One of Them

This book is partly a memoir about growing up black in the United Kingdom, but mostly about being one of the few black scholarship students at Eton College. Okwonga’s family were refugees from the civil war in Uganda in the 1970s. His father died during the war, his mother worked very hard as a doctor to support her five children and teaches them to keep their head down, work twice as hard as everyone else and fit right in. She fully supports her son’s decision to go to Eton, even though it will take two years of prep school to get there and it is a struggle for her to pay even the 50% of the tuition fees required.

Although the author proves to be both clever enough and sporty enough to do well at Eton (and is lucky in being assigned to a house with a more diverse student body and a decent house master), his outsider status allows him to see both the advantages and the flaws of private schools like Eton. It was a quick, easy read, but some of the quotes really stuck with me, so I am sharing a few with you:

I think a great deal about the English concept of fair play: the idea that there are some things that are simply not done. The older I get, the more I wonder how much that concept was created to keep people of a certain social class in their place. I look at the most confident people in my year and I realise that the greatest gift that has been bestowed upon them is that of shamelessness. Shamelessness is the superpower of a certain section of the English upper classes. While so many other people in the country are hamstrung by the deference and social embarrassment they have been taught since birth, the upper classes calmly parade on through the streets and boardrooms to claim the spoils. They don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, but this is where they perfect it.

This is why so many people who grow up in environments of such comfort can be so unsympathetic to those who don’t. They simply have no concept of a society where, even if people work their very hardest, everything can still fall apart for the majority of them. They have been raised in a realm where every personal downfall is self-inflicted – a wealthy kid caught with drugs… The idea that you can simply be overhwelmved by your circumstances is utterly alien to them.

Almost every schoolfriend whom I have seen express a political view on social media has been Conservative. And why wouldn’t they be? This world works for them just as it is. It provides them with living standards and a basic level of comfort that are unimaginable to most people. Why the hell would they want to change that… You don’t have to be cruel in your daily life to enact policies with cruel effects…. So why wouldn’t many of my contemporaries vote for austerity? It’s so much easier to deprive your fellow voters if you’ve never paid careful attention to their suffering.

He talks about a certain category of pupils, the most extreme ones, known as ‘the lads’, who defy all social conventions. I think we know that the current PM was part of those.

My school never creates the lads – they arrive there with the core of their egos fully formed – but it frequently seems to end up rewarding them with some of the most senior positions in the student body… The lads have long ago worked out, or been told, that what matters is not being good-natured but achieving high office. In a system where boys are raised to be deferential to those in authority, they know that if they merely gain prestige, then personal popularity will follow.

There is some hand-wringing among his old schoolmates about Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister.

How could he have become the leader? they ask, and that is perhaps the wrong question; the right question, perhaps, is how could he not? In a political system closed to all but a few, with the same few names in constant rotation and with no apparent consequences for grave failure, such an individual was eventually bound to get his change. Many of the same people apparently horrified at his coronation, and who describe him as an anomaly, mostly share his world view; it is just that he is less polite about it. The prime minister may be outlandish in his speech and appearance, but he is not an outlier.

The most devastating chapter is when, years later, a friend from Eton asks the author how he coped with the racism at school. Okwango replies that there were a few people who were racist, but on the whole it wasn’t bad. The friend then disillusions him, letting him know that the racism was constant and that the people whom he considered his friends were often the worst offenders (but simply did not voice those opinions in front of him). His past happiness seems to crumble before his very eyes – this sounds familiar to all of us who suddenly heard our neighbours and friends talking about ‘those bloody foreigners’ after Brexit, but ‘of course we don’t mean you.’

I imagine the many good times I spent with them, laughing along in some of my happiest moments, and I can’t help but feel that so much of that has been shattered… It is no comfort at all to me to think that they probably did not make any of those jokes with me in mind, because to boys like them I was probably the exception that proved the rule: Yes, most black men are big and stupid, but not him: he is different, he is civilised, he is clever. I have learned in the years since that when people’s prejudice is so deep-rooted, I don’t change their minds about black people; I often just end up confirming their view of the majority.

This book should be on a reading list of those seeking to understand the cursed class system in Britain.