The Enigma of Kidson: The Portrait of an Eton Schoolmaster by Jamie Blackett

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the abiding assets of Great Britain are two: eccentricity and humor. The fact that country houses are often madhouses, and that the Brits are experts at taking nothing too seriously, least of all themselves, is what gives a spark and sense of surprise to everything from Downton Abbey to that sit-down comedian known as Evelyn Waugh. “That’s the role of Britain in the post-imperial world,” an Anglophile friend keeps assuring me. “To be the world’s court jester.” If you look at some of the alternatives, often afflicted with comedy of the most inadvertent kind, you may come to believe that silly walks have their graces.

For devotees of the form, one of the most priceless documents to appear in recent years is a little-known work, available on Amazon, entitled The Enigma of Kidson, a largely oral biography of a strange-gaited man who taught history at Eton for 29 years, from the time of Harold Wilson to that of John Major. Of course, a school where teachers are called “beaks,” students dress like penguins, and the black-robed boys who sweep into classrooms to summon malefactors to the headmaster are called “praepostors” (as in “preposterous”) has a head start when it comes to humor.

Prince William on his first day at Eton, 1995. The backdrop image is from 1930.

But Eton is also the place that has produced 20 prime ministers—including two of the last three—and remains so dominant right now (it schooled Princes William and Harry, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, a disproportionate number of the country’s leading actors, and the founder of Amnesty International) that, for much of the country, it’s no joke at all. As the U.K. remains convulsed in debates over whether such “bastions of privilege” should be abolished, the book offers a rare glimpse into what is at stake.

A Class of His Own

The Enigma of Kidson was published two years ago by a former student of the anti-Chips in question, Jamie Blackett, who—as his bio cheerily announces—is “a farmer, forester, bed and breakfast and holiday cottage host, gardener and odd job man,” having trained for these positions by serving the Coldstream Guards everywhere from the Falklands to Zimbabwe. The dukes and viscounts he assembles to offer their reminiscences of the teacher who likened the prose of one student to “a demented parrot” and of another a “jackass’s penis” write with unexpected urbanity and candor about how the eccentric martinet got them, in spite of everything, to master a few essential facts about Gladstone and Palmerston. Quite a few Etonians, it’s noted in the characteristic tone of the book, ended up “detained, at Her Majesty’s pleasure,” behind bars. One attempted a coup in Equatorial Guinea as a mercenary. Many of the others are captains of industry, priests, or (much to their old teacher’s delight) racing journalists and horse trainers.

There are delectable photographs here and mischievous comments teenage boys from David Cameron to Dominic West sent their quarrelsome beak when graduating in their late teens. (“I know you think that I know less History than your dog … ” begins Cameron’s valedictory.) But deeper than such diversions is the picture of a man who affected to insult everyone he met, who horrified the staff of Southeby’s by traveling everywhere with his hounds, for whom much of the world was a toilet.

A school where teachers are called “beaks” and students dress like penguins.

With a deadpan sincerity that could inspire decades of Fawlty Towers episodes, The Enigma of Kidson reproduces the exchanges its hero enjoyed with the many fellow teachers he tussled with, often on the subject of whose dogs had befouled the staircase. It records his berating a student as a “fearful ignoramus” for “mispronouncing” his own name, writing to one Lady Mancroft of her beloved son, “Frankly, I don’t think that Benjamin has any great talent,” and pretending to a snobbishness that would have left Waugh at a loss for words. And it shows how, again and again, this seemingly heartless soul would write confidential letters to universities, appear in court to defend delinquent students, and even offer lodgings, surreptitiously, to boys who’d been kicked out of the school so as to smooth their way into the larger world.

A room of one’s own: student digs at Eton, circa 1969.

Those raised in old-fashioned British internment camps—where, as recently as the 1970s, boys were allowed (even encouraged) to beat other boys, senior boys had junior boys, or “fags,” to make them toast in the morning, and none of us could quite tell whether we were being trained to be field marshals or monks—have little time for Dead Poets Society–style sentimentality. The currency of choice is insult, and in his way Kidson was effectively teaching his charges to train most of their irreverence on the school and nearly all of its arcane and often arbitrary rules. Insofar as the products of Eton horrify much of the world, it may be in part because they’ve been taught to be mavericks (every boy, uniquely, has his own room; there are no shared dormitories) and in part because they’ll never be impressed by Etonians, and tend to ignore the world’s usual notions of success.

Hall of Fame

Over its nearly 580 years of existence, Eton has developed a formidable literature, having educated Fielding and Shelley and Thomas Gray; it produced in the 20th century a Norton-esque anthology of scribblers, many of whom committed words about the school, from Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, through the Empty Quarter–loving Wilfred Thesiger, by way of Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell, to Colin Thubron and Craig Brown.

Two of the M.P.’s hovering around Old Etonian Boris Johnson—the sometime writer Rory Stewart and the seemingly self-parodying Jacob Rees-Mogg—were both at the school; those who enjoyed, say, the recent television adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager (le Carré has said that teaching at Eton taught him much about both intelligence and the criminal mind) will have watched the Old Etonians Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston pit smooth villainy against unruffled perfidy, not long after the Old Etonian Eddie Redmayne turned himself, in quick succession, into a Danish girl and a wheelchair-bound scientist.

“That’s the role of Britain in the post-imperial world—to be the world’s court jester.”

The British can become so skilled at playacting that they lose all sense of who they are and what they believe. As the title of the book reminds us, the man at its center was mysterious even to himself, perhaps: never married, though often visited by “lady friends,” ambiguous in terms of religious belief, well defended by his many mannerisms and tics, to the point where even he may have lost track of who he’d be without his props. But the book keeps managing, with a winning lack of effort, to find kindness and intelligence and playfulness beneath all the Wodehouse elements, and to suggest that the greatest grace of a place like Eton is to mock all pretensions and assume that no one is much better than anyone else. (It’s hard to put on airs when there’s always a brighter, cooler, or better-connected boy down the corridor.)

Michael Kidson taught history at Eton for 29 years. The currency of choice was insult.

As the school’s alumni newsletter recently recorded with delight, one lackluster student received a science report that read, “It has been a disastrous half”—the Eton word for a term. “I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous.” The hopeless case in question, Professor Sir John Gurdon, later collected a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work in cloning.

Pico Iyer is the author of several books including, most recently, Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan