THE WAY WE WERE
Young Etonians in the Nineties, long before the ‘Streetonians’ arrived
Oi, G, pass me the Rizlas. I don’t want to be put on Tardy again – man’s got two weeks already,’ says the boy as he tucks his non-regulation Reeboks beneath his pinstriped trousers and swaggers out of the bushes towards College Chapel. ‘We still seeing that peng ting from Downe this Short Leave?’
It’s a scene played out daily in the smoking spots controlled by the different gangs at Eton College. The lingo is London slang peppered with idiosyncratic ‘Eton speak’, only intelligible to an elite segment of the school’s society.
The old guard may fear that students such as these are the product of the school’s new outreach efforts – in recent years, Eton has taken positive steps to become more meritocratic, both introducing a rigorous admissions process to skim out the ‘clotted creams’ (thick, rich, white applicants) and setting aside an annual budget of £6.6m for students who pass the reasoning tests (of which more later) but who need financial support to cover the hefty £40,000-plus annual fees. They are, in fact, the ‘Streetonians’: the newest generation of the most well-connected and well-respected families in Britain.
A sea change has been washing over public schools, and leading the charge is Eton, where certain boys now think it’s never been so cool to be common. To mitigate the stigma of privilege, Etonians are abandoning their red trousers and elongated vowels in favour of streetwear and glottal stops. These students – who may have been brought up in some of Britain’s most historic houses – aim to give the impression that they grew up on a very different kind of estate.
At the top of the food chain are the ‘Chiefs’. Resented and respected in equal measure, these are the children of the Old Etonians who, 40 years ago, might have been cavorting around Windsor in tails. Their progeny are now lounging in tracksuits and posing with gang signs for social media or smoking vapes ordered online and shipped from the United States.
The internet has provided this generation of Etonians with unprecedented access to urban youth culture. One boy allegedly made so much money from selling streetwear on Facebook groups that he was said to have been contacted by HMRC. Aside from high-end streetwear, the current fashion trend among Streetonians is to sport diamond stud earrings. However, the phenomenon goes beyond the merely sartorial. Imitating grime artists, Streetonians attempt to start ‘beef ’ with public-school rivals over social media. One prolonged Facebook spat between the Eton ‘Chiefs’ and the Harrow ‘Safe Seven’ culminated in a gang fight at the schools’ annual cricket match at Lord’s. Unsurprisingly, this particular turf war resulted in no stabbings and the fight was broken up by teachers rather than police officers.
Of course, the standard joke is that Streetonians must love ketamine more than their family horses do, and whatever the truth, you’ll find them out raving in Brixton nightclubs at the weekend. On leaving school, many will end up at Bristol University where they will borrow their parents’ money to put on drum-and-bass nights.
Then there are the ‘sporty boys’ who find a different way to shed the soft toff stereotype. These pupils take on the challenge of acting like football lads while wearing morning dress. For those elected into the school’s illustrious prefect society known as ‘Pop’ and so permitted to wear a personalised waistcoat, the most popular design is a tailored replica of their favoured football team’s jersey. (In his day, Prince William had an Aston Villa waistcoat.) They’re often found in the school pub, the Tap, the older boys gulping down pints of Foster’s, imitating the chat of their favourite Match of the Day pundits, and debating their house team’s success as if discussing the local league side.
Unlike at most other boarding schools, international students have been unable to form their own social tribe. One Arab prince, unaccustomed to the bad food at the school and to being ordered around by staff, made an early departure and, in truth, only a handful of the international super-rich gain entry. Russian businessmen may pay big money to ‘education consultants’ in an attempt to secure their boys a place, but the exam is designed to be impossible to prepare for. Working with Durham University, Eton developed a reasoning test which, combined with an informal interview, enables the school to identify boys’ potential ability regardless of background. Eton offers bursaries to 21 per cent of the student body (averaging a 66 per cent reduction), with 73 boys currently receiving 100 per cent reduction of fees.
Most of the students muddle together and, for them, it is unimportant whether their friends are bursary recipients or otherwise. Arguably, however, there is division felt among parents. The Fourth of June is a joyous occasion when marquees and marquesses occupy the school’s playing fields for extravagant picnics that are preceded by the iconic ‘Procession of Boats’. Even the Streetonians are on their best behaviour as they glide between family friends, indulging Old Boys’ rose-tinted reminiscences of their time at the school. But the parents receiving financial support are sadly less likely to turn up or to stay as long. It might be that they feel uncomfortable, having had less time than their children to adjust to this odd elite milieu.
More work needs to be done before Eton becomes truly inclusive. However, the school continues to make genuine steps to adapt to modern Britain. Meanwhile, for Streetonians, it’s understandable they don’t want to bear the societal expectations that come with revealing their upbringing. It’s also nothing new for youth to form distinct identities from their parents.
But it can become problematic outside the Eton bubble when boys appropriate black and working-class cultures while facing none of the challenges of such backgrounds. Streetonians may be able to adopt the ways of the urban youth when it suits, but they also have the privilege of effortlessly displaying their polished upbringing when it is to their advantage in other situations. At university it has angered some students to discover that their new acquaintances, whose façade suggests they overcame the same obstacles to get into a top Russell Group from a local comp, actually came straight outta Eton.
IAN BERRY/MAGNUM. NONE OF THE INDIVIDUALS FEATURED IN THESE IMAGES IS A SUBJECT OF THE STORY ■