People seldom believe me when I tell them my school had 20 different ties. We had a standard school tie, sixth form ties, house ties, school colours ties, a school bow tie for Christ’s sake, all sorts – 20 of them, either denoting some special status or other or marking you out as undistinguished fodder.
There were other idiosyncracies. The hall was called Great Hall – not the Great Hall, just Great Hall, as if it were obviously far too important to warrant an article, like God. In the old school building across the road, the hall was known as Big School, as if we were all infants who might one day be allowed to walk through its doors.
Teachers weren’t teachers but Masters and the headmaster seemed to me the last of the Great Victorians, a man entirely out of kilter with the times. He had a precious patch of grass, referred to with overblown deference as The Headmaster’s Lawn, which no-one was allowed to step on unless they were very special indeed.
Our silver-haired Latin master insisted on being referred to by his military title, even though he had left the army at least three decades earlier. He once mentioned the “fuzzie-wuzzies” while teaching us about the Zulu wars and he ran the school cadet corps, which mainly involved marching mindlessly up and down the playground on Monday afternoons, while carrying real guns.
Holier-than-thou Masters would extol the virtues of the Corinthian spirit during assemblies while turning a blind eye to the fact that they were presiding over a culture where anything less than excellence was considered failure. Our system of punishments was almost as labyrinthine – and as humiliating – as the hierarchy of ties.
As a lower middle class kid, this social, sporting and academic hothouse was quite outside the realm of my prior experience. I was in awe of the sense of entitlement most of the boys seemed to have bred into them. The whole thing was alien, baffling and extremely intimidating to an over-sensitive child like me. I obviously didn’t belong. So I did the only thing I could to survive: I shut down.
If I’d seen If… when I was 15 or 16, I might have understood much earlier what was actually happening around me. I would certainly have had a hero to look up to. As it was, I had to wait until my early 30s to catch it one Saturday night on Channel Four.
It was a revelation.
Thanks to Lindsay Andersons’ cold-eyed, vicious, portrayal of a great public school, all the absurdity of my own school days started to make some kind of weird sense. I had thought the peculiar rituals and terminology were exclusive to my minor independent school in Guildford. But no – they were just a self-aggrandising imitation of the language and traditions of bigger and more noted institutions like Eton and Rugby.
What I was watching – what I had experienced for seven painfully long years – was a kind of slow brainwashing in the ways of the Establishment. We were just a nursery for breeding the kind of people who would go on to populate the institutions that propped up a self-serving culture dedicated solely to its own preservation and the accumulation of privilege. In my case, all that time and effort went into producing people who would mainly become solicitors, actuaries and accountants.
In If…, Lindsay Anderson lays bare the seamless transition from the nursery to the great institutions of state. Suddenly I understood: of course, Parliamentary Whips are so-called because the enforcers at places like Eton actually carried whips with which to beat the non-conformity out of younger-more vulnerable children.
What If… really shows, with crystal clarity, is how the Establishment works through a distasteful blend of violence and almost childlike idealism. It is a brutal film, punctuated by dreamy flights of fancy; it’s absurd, terrifying, depressing, inspiring and fuelled by a righteous fury and the deadly, animal charisma of a young Malcolm McDowell. It’s not so much a film as an angry evisceration. It’s an annihilation. It’s intoxicating.
And it’s as relevant today as it was when Anderson made it 40 years ago. The schools have changed, of course – no-one could get away with that level of brutality in education now. But they are still the nurseries of the Establishment. Even now, a cabal of Old Etonians is preparing for government, and the senior ranks of the other side are as packed with white men who went to some private school or other (ironically, one of them, James Purnell, went to mine). Power is still concentrated in the same elite circles, privilege still clings to the few.
There are two rational responses to a state of affairs that is so despicable yet so immovably ingrained in our society: shut down or destroy it. I shut down. Malcolm McDowell blows it all to hell. God, I wish I’d seen If… when I was 15 years old.