Thursday 30 September 2021

somebody I used to know...

For most of the time I've been in my monthly writing group, I've been doing a lot of "magical realism" style of fiction. I seem drawn to things like talking animals and a world that's like ours, only slightly different. In an attempt to try and get away from this, and in a style that's probably familiar to long-time readers of this blog, I've been delving deeper into my memories and dredging out things that I've never articulated before. It's been a rewarding and also occasionally alarming process. Cathartic, I think.

Anyway, here's something I wrote over the summer. It's all true, albeit obviously only viewed from my perspective. It's the story of somebody I used to know: Hugo.


To most people, Boris Johnson must seem like a character out of a book: he’s Billy Bunter made flesh; he’s Just William, he’s Flashman. It’s present in the ruffled hair, the snatches of Latin and in the classical references that pepper every speech. You can even see it in the way that, although he is clearly dressed expensively, he still somehow looks as though he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards. It takes a lot of money to look that scruffy. Yes. Johnson – Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – is every bit the caricature of the English public schoolboy of popular imagination. 

We should probably be used to this by now: since Robert Walpole became the first, Britain has been served by fifty-five prime ministers. Nearly all of those enjoyed a private education, and fully twenty of them (starting with Walpole himself and finishing with the present incumbent) were educated at Eton. Is it really any wonder that people with this sort of educational background often seem entitled, or that most of us think it’s normal to be governed by people like this? The history of our democracy tells us that both these things are true. 

Johnson likes to present himself as a man of the people. He loves to visit factories and warehouses and to dress up in the clothes of the normal working people of this country, to pretend that he’s just like us, when clearly, he is nothing like us. Can you actually imagine going out to a pub for a drink with Boris Johnson and trying to have a normal conversation with him? He doesn’t seem like a real person at all, does he? 

He might seem like an alien to many people, but he’s all too familiar to me, because I went to school with people like Johnson and I’ve seen this kind of easy, unearned self-confidence before. 

I first met Hugo when we were both thirteen and were being shown around our boarding house on the first day of term at our new school. It’s quite an overwhelming experience. Both of us had been to boarding schools before but being dropped off by your parents and being left alone with the eighteen-year-old prefects is legitimately terrifying. I’d been a pretty big fish in the small pond of my prep school: literally. As well as being head boy, a growth spurt also meant that I was also comfortably the tallest pupil in the school. That first afternoon being shown around my new school by two members of the school first XV rugby team (flanker and second row forward) was a pretty clear demonstration that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. 

There were fourteen of us in my year and Hugo didn’t make an immediate impression on me. I’m sure he didn’t make much of me, either. Probably we were both just overwhelmed by the whole experience. A handful of the other boys had been at my prep school, so I likely gravitated towards the people I knew. Likewise, one of the other new boys had been at Hugo’s old school, and I’m sure the two of them were drawn to each other as we tried to take it all in without drawing anybody’s attention. Now was a time for blending in, not sticking out. No one is that confident. 

It didn’t take too long after that for Hugo to make his mark. He was one of those boys who seemed to be full of boisterous energy and enthusiasm. He wasn’t as tall as me, but he was still a pretty big lad. At the age of thirteen, like a puppy, Hugo seemed to have huge paws, a massive head and a general lack of coordination, but he was also very physical and liked a bit of rough-and-tumble. He was pretty thoughtless and never really seemed to give any thought to any possible consequences, but he seemed to lack malice. He would act on impulse, get into trouble, but then be so charming that he always seemed to get away with it. 

It was hard to dislike Hugo. 

I liked him.
Everyone liked him. 

The environment at a school like this means that you spend an awful lot of time with the people in your house, and none more so than the people in your year. From that very first day onward, we would spend almost every waking hour of every day together, including weekends. We weren’t necessarily in the same classes, but we would eat together, play sport together, muck about together and sleep in the same dormitories. Over the course of five years living in each other’s pockets like this, you really get to know someone, for better and for worse. To make things even more interesting and to spice up the mix, most people also go through a lot of physical and emotional changes between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. There was very little privacy here and nowhere to hide. You learn to bury your emotions deep in an environment like this lest you show anything that makes you seem weak or makes you vulnerable. 

Hugo and I knocked along pretty well. We were very different people: neither of us were particularly good at sport, but I was pretty academic, and we tended to hang out with very different groups of friends. I spent a lot of time listening to music, reading and making a few, really good friends (many of whom are still my very closest friends today). Now I think if it, I can’t actually remember Hugo having any particularly good friends, but he was popular enough, and was certainly better-known around the wider school. As I said, there were fourteen people in my year in my House, around 100 people in total in my House and something like 900 people in the school as a whole. It was quite self-contained little galaxy of overlapping orbits. If Hugo hadn’t been in my year in my House, I’m not sure I would have had any reason to know him, and might actually have actively avoided him, but as things were, we spent a lot of time together and got on without ever really being bosom-buddies. At one point, we actually shared a two-bed dormitory. 

I think it was the arrival of the girls that changed everything. At our school, the first three years were entirely single sex, but as you entered the sixth form, girls were allowed to join the school (lucky them!). They had their own boarding houses, of course, but they joined our classes and they were assigned a boys’ boarding house for their meals. To the fourteen of us in my year in my house, now aged around seventeen, we now suddenly had four girls join us at mealtimes. It’s a bit of a shock for all concerned. It’s overly simplistic to say that it was the very presence of the girls that brought about the change in our relationships, but I think it’s fair to say that they were a prism that revealed a side of our characters that we’d never really been forced to look at too closely before. 

Like most teenage boys, we talked about girls all the time. Most of us had been at almost entirely single-sex boarding schools since the age of seven or eight, so we had no practical experience to speak of. The arrival of girls into our everyday lives was like the arrival of a foreign species. I can only imagine how bizarre an experience this must have been for the girls. For us boys, we suddenly saw these people with whom we had shared nearly every waking moment of the last three years, and thought that we knew pretty well, suddenly start to behave quite differently. 

For myself, I had very little idea how to begin to talk to these strange creatures, but I did have a fairly strong sense of how I did not want to behave. Hugo, who had often regaled us in the dormitory after lights out with tales of his supposed success with women, had a very different sense of how he wanted to behave. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a predator; women were not people in their own right but they were something to be pursued, consumed and then dropped. He was pretty cold-blooded about it too. I remember one poor girl, Alice, who soaked up the full focus of his charm. She was a year younger than us, seventeen, when he wooed her. She thought she loved him. Eventually, he got what he wanted and he more-or-less came charging out of his study to tell us all about it. He left her in tears and never spoke to her again. It felt wrong then and it feels even worse now I type those words. That is literally what he did, and I found it impossible to consider him charming when I knew that he was capable of this sort of behaviour. 

I haven’t spoken to Hugo since the day we finished our A-levels and left the school to head off to University. We have friends in common, of course, and he has sporadically tried to make contact with me over social media, but I’ve always declined. I think he has kids now, but after leaving school, he seems to have drifted through life on a sea of privilege and lack of consequence. As far as I’m aware, he hasn’t had to work too hard for anything that has come his way in life. Perhaps he’s changed. Perhaps he hasn’t. 

There were a lot of people like Hugo at my school. 

Barack Obama observed of David Cameron in his autobiography that he had “the easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life.” That phrase really resonated with me. I know far too many people from my school days to whom that phrase could be equally applied, not least Hugo. Many ended up working in banking in places like Hong Kong and Sydney. None, as far as I’m aware, have gone into politics, but whenever I see Boris Johnson, I can’t help but think of Hugo and how much collateral damage someone like that is capable of causing to the people around them.

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