Boys will be boys.
Many’s the time I have sat with a schoolboy, scrubbing brush and soap-and-water whilst said pupil removed his mark from a school desk.
So: it is doubly puzzling to me how one of the top schools in the country – the world, even – has allowed itself to become covered in the graffiti of the great and the good.
Eton College: a whole village, essentially; great chapel, domed library, concert hall, music school. It looks like a tiny university, a little piece of Oxford or Cambridge, torn at the dotted line and parked across the Thames from Windsor.
Its beginnings are ancient. Henry VI needed lots of people to pray for his safe passage into the next life. In those days rich people used their power to purchase Godspeed. So in 1440 he founded the King’s College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor. It consisted of 70 poor scholars, each of whom would spend their schooldays there before going on to study at King’s College, Cambridge, which was built by Henry the following year. I hope the scholars did a good job of praying for Henry, for he died in the Tower of London , either of melancholy or murder, depending on who you believe, around 30 years later.
It was small and free for a good while: records from the seventeenth century show 198 pupils; but in the eighteenth century posh pupils arrived, backed by fat fees and private tutors. It did not improve the conditions of the boarding houses- the places the boys lived in small communities within the schools: they could be dingy and rats were constant companions.
But all this time, they boys were carving their names on the walls. Nobody seems to have stopped them: the carved names are prolific. They are everywhere, on pillars, on walls, in the wood. Institutionalised graffiti. In a place which looks like a tiny piece of Hampton Court, but is, of course, still a school for clever, boisterous, privileged boys.
Thing is, the carving’s quite good. It must have taken some considerable time. I can’t imagine just whittling away in a contraband few minutes in between the patrols of the master-on-watch. Some of these look like little Tarquin has hired a mason and smuggled him in. Perhaps they have invisibility cloaks at Eton.
Whatever their origin the names are a positive delight. Some are familiar: the two Coleridge boys who set their names in stone on the Cloister Walls; Pitt, Turner, Hobbs.
And others just have that music of a school register: Monson, Langford, Marsh, Haigh, Allwood, Lamplugh and Fielding, Barbar and Lawrence.
It is, quite simply, a delight to collect them and read them out loud, a lilting litany of English names.
It is just possible that there are some who should have thought twice about carving their name for posteriors. I mean posterity.
And as a final treat: