three pairs of lovers with space

REVIEW OF NIGGER AT ETON BY DILLIBE ONYEAMA

 

Nigger at Eton was published in London in 1972.

 

A rather sad, but unsurprising true story  *****


Dillibe Onyeama was the second African ever to go to Eton College, “the world’s most famous school” as he calls it, where he arrived in January 1965, aged fourteen, having been put down for it at birth by his father, an eminent Oxford-educated Nigerian judge. This account of his four years there is claimed by the author to be entirely true excepting some changes of name. I believe that, as it rings consistently true of my experiences as a boy there at a later date when little had changed. As for the names, Onyeama points out his use of aliases on the rare occasions he employs them. Real names and personal descriptions are given of almost every character, including some with fairly unattractive portrayals or discreditable roles in the story.

Onyeama arrived to find himself treated by everyone in his house “much more kindly than the other new boys.” Successful appeal had evidently been made to the better nature of the boys in his house and at first they stood up for him whenever he ran into difficulties. Inevitably though, there was widespread curiosity. It may be lost on many today brought up in multi-racial societies, but I well remember being excited when for the first time in my life I found myself next to an African, in Lower Chapel my first morning at Eton. More ominously, like every school since schools were invented, Eton was plagued by a few bullies always ready to pick on anyone different, and Onyeama soon began to hear humiliating ape noises following him around. When one of his tormentors asked him “Has your mother got a bone through her nose?” the outsized African lost his temper completely. “I swung a powerful right-hander at his chin. … He dropped to the floor like an inert sack and lay there crying. The happy faces of his friends distorted with shock, and next they were shouting at me with disapproval.” Resorting to violence, which Onyeama says was part of African culture, was not done at Eton; the news spread, he became unpopular, the racial taunts grew and he continued to react aggressively. Unfortunately, a reputation at Eton is hard to change and it was only at the very end of his time there that his happily did. One in his year has confirmed Onyeama’s unpopularity and its cause to me, and that it was not for racial reasons since the other African at Eton, Akintola, was very popular. Any boy who made himself unpopular was bound to be subject to some kind of wounding mockery, so Onyeama’s being of a different race became a far bigger issue that it need have been.

Onyeama is winningly honest to the point of being hard on himself. In the fascinating chapter about his background in Nigeria and at English prep school (oddly placed third as it would have been more helpful placed first), he describes himself as lazy, fat and constantly behaving badly. Of the one time he was caned at Eton (for being rude to his house’s Italian waiters), he says “I had deserved it,” and “other boys were beaten for far more trivial offences than that.” He blames his poor academic performance on his laziness. Though hurt that allowances were made for him since it was widely assumed to be because he was African, he acknowledges they were well-intentioned. The other side of the coin is that he was delighted when his prowess at sport was likewise attributed to his race, just as he enjoyed being seen by crowds at the Fourth of June, the school’s greatest annual holiday, feeling “arrogant to be the only black … and enjoying all the looks of curiosity from families. I really felt important.”

Dillibe in the Eton College Boxing Team, 1965

Do not suppose that the sensational-sounding racial angle to Onyeama’s story means that that is its only important point of interest. It is an excellent account of what life at Eton was like for boys there in general, the most thorough I know of, and, excluding fictionalized accounts like mine, the most recently set of more than article length. It benefits from having been written soon after the author left, while he still retained a boy’s sense of what matters, uncorrupted by later wisdom. This adds to its emotional authenticity. It should be much appreciated by anyone interested in either public school life in the sixties, or by anyone curious about the unique character of Eton. Regarding the latter, I suspect it is also pretty good as an indication of what it feels like to be there today, as although the school has of course changed with the times, its distinctive features have not. Even those who were there may learn something: though obviously aware that masters did not strike boys, I had no idea boys were allowed to strike back if they did!

The chapter on homosexuality, unsurprisingly decried by The Sunday Times, may be the most valuable because it was still rare and daring to describe it then, and its character has changed so much since. “There was an atmosphere of sex at Eton all the time,” but there were no women, “so the only kind of sex that occurred or was usually talked about was that between males.” Describing copious discussion of it amongst the boys following the expulsion of two for raping another, Onyeama says there was widespread feeling they should not have been expelled if it had been consensual, though he himself disagreed, believing “homosexuality was unnatural and outrageous.” That the homosexuality to which Eton boys were then inclined was pederastic and potentially pervasive (in sharp contrast to that of today’s gay minority) is illustrated by his housemaster’s “only view of homosexuality … that big boys should not associate with little boys because of sexual attraction.” When discipline was suddenly laxed towards the end of Onyeama’s time, there was an immediate surge of “big boys associating with little boys because of sexual attraction.”

Dillibe in his Eton house photo, 1965

As a measure to counter homosexuality perhaps unknown to Onyeama, British society had been increasingly stigmatising all physical affection between schoolboys since the mid-nineteenth century, when it was still common for them to walk arm-in-arm or hold hands. As Tim Card reports in his 1994 history of Eton, by then the boys had become “as prudish among other males as Victorian maidens.” The sadness of this change is well brought out by Onyeama’s misfortune in being wrongly regarded as homosexual because in horseplay he failed to adapt from the carefree ways of his homeland to the British suspicion of prolonged physical touch.

Onyeama’s time at Eton was by no means entirely bad. He had “many enjoyable moments” and some kind friends. Ironically, two of those who treated him most decently were Afrikaans, whilst Akintola was his enemy. However, though in the end he was “glad to have been at Eton” and “was always going to be proud of it,” he still felt he “had never really been liked or accepted” and was glad to leave because “colour prejudice was the most outstanding feature of my experiences.” This is terribly sad, but I am not sure that heavy blame can fairly be placed on anyone except the odd ill-intentioned bully. The other boys and the masters can hardly be blamed for their ignorance of Africans. Though Onyeama blames his unpopularity on his own violence, it is impossible to ignore the pain that gave rise to it. Perhaps his father should not have sent such a sensitive son to an English public-school, knowing as he did, that he would be “ragged” there, but with Onyeama finally glad to have been sent, who can fairly say it was not worth it to achieve his desire “that his children should have the best education that he could possibly afford?” Finally, not least of its benefits, it led Onyeama, aged only twenty-one, to write this excellent book, and he has continued to be a successful author ever since.

 

Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on goodreads.com, 26 April 2017.

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