I have not been checking my emails as much as I should. Only today, Saturday, have I found an email from my brother sent on Thursday. For those of you who don’t know, he is a well-known journalist, a columnist on the Daily Mail. His name is Tom.
The email was a desperate plea. The editor had discovered that Tom went to Wetherby pre-prep school between the ages of five and eight (as did I). It is thought that Prince George of Cambridge, whose father, the Duke of Cambridge, also went to Wetherby, is likely to be enrolled in the school in September. The editor of the Mail insisted that Tom’s Friday article should be about Wetherby. But, as Tom’s email said, he could remember practically nothing about the place. Could I help?
Poor Tom had to do without my help because I didn’t see his email in time. He did the best he could. He wrote an amusing open letter to Prince George giving advice from a sixty-three-year-old man who drinks and smokes too much to a three-year-old boy about to embark on school.
I suspect that most of the Mail’s real readers, those who buy the newspaper rather than troll it on the internet, will have loved Tom’s witty piece. But the internet readers, or those who commented on it, were enraged by it. There were complaints about “sycophancy”. There were, obviously, the inevitable moans about Prince George being sent to a private school rather than to the local state primary. But it was not all just predictable anti-royal envy. One or two commenters (obviously a little short in the brain department) accused Tom of being stupid for thinking a three-year-old boy would be capable of reading the open letter to him. Most extraordinary of all were the comments (and there were many of them) from people who thought it deeply sinister that a sixty-three-year-old man should be writing an open letter to a three-year-old boy. So furious were they that I would not be surprised to learn that they had contacted Scotland Yard to demand a dawn raid on Tom’s house (with a BBC helicopter filming it all). Neither, sad to say, would I be surprised to learn that Scotland Yard had agreed to do the raid.
As I scrolled through the comments on Tom’s piece I became more and more worried about the sanity of my fellow British subjects. But it wasn’t only that they had what we now have to call “learning difficulties”. A great many of them were just plain nasty. Poor Tom, who had not wanted to write about Prince George and Wetherby at all, was accused, endlessly, of writing the article in order to show off that he had been to a school attended by royal children. He was castigated for being overpaid (how do they know how much he is paid?). It was all, I have to say, very horrid.
I am not in the least surprised that Tom, and most other journalists I know, never read the comments below the line on their articles. Most of us have just assumed that all those beastly people who write beastly comments on articles on the internet are spotty teenagers shut up in stuffy and smelly bedrooms in “Mum’s flat”. But I fear we are wrong. Yes, a lot of them fall into that category, but a great many more don’t. People we meet in daily life, people who put on a facade of normality, may well be throwing foul abuse at decent journalists when they get home to their computers.
Oh well, not much we can do about that.
How could I have helped Tom if I had had the decency to read his email on Thursday?
The answer is, not very much. As with him, my memories of Wetherby have faded over the years. I suppose the most vivid recollection I have is of morning assembly. We, tiny children, would sit in rows on the floor. Mr and Mrs Russell (headmaster and his wife) would be sitting on chairs facing us. Mrs Russell was a large and imposing presence. If I had been asked, at the time, to guess her age I would have put it at abut 150, but I suppose she must have been in her forties. She always sat in the same way, legs wide apart. We gazed, not entirely appreciating the sight, at her suspenders and very large knickers. No, that wouldn’t have helped Tom: the police raid would have been even earlier than dawn.
I remember, as a Catholic boy, having to cross the road once a week to go to St Philip’s prep school for boys for religious education. We had to pass the St Philip’s headmaster’s study. A shiver of fear mixed, I regret to say, with schadenfreude would run down our spines if the red light was on. That meant, we were all convinced, that a St Philip’s boy was being caned.
But most of my memories are of girls. They can be of no assistance to Prince George. Wetherby must be the only English school which has moved from being co-educational to single sex. When Tom and I were there there were as many girls as boys. Now there are only boys.
There was Peppy. She was, we all thought, a very pretty five year-old. I was deeply envious. She was definitely Tom’s girlfriend.
And then there was the daughter of the high ranking official in the South African High Commission (she may even have been the High Commissioner’s daughter). She kindly invited me to her birthday party in South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. It must have been 1958 or 1959. In one of the rooms there was a large television set. It wasn’t switched on (in those days you could only get the test card most of the time). But I thought it a wonderful sight. I was gazing admiringly at it when my five or six-year-old hostess joined me. She said it was a colour television. I knew about those things then. I said there was no such thing as colour television in England. She smiled at me in a rather patronising way and explained that, in South Africa, it showed colour pictures. I believed her for years. Then I began to doubt. It is only today that I have done the research. Not only was there no colour television in South Africa in 1959, but there was no television at all: it was in 1976 that the South African government relented and allowed television.
No, I wouldn’t have been any help to Tom, but I still should have read his email.