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Charles Cumming on Why Eton Produces So Many Spies

Posted on 6th June 2021 by Mark Skinner

In Box 88, Charles Cumming's latest pulsating espionage thriller, the novel's central protagonist Lachlan Kite is sent to Alford, a public school explicitly based on Eton, where he is talent-spotted by British Intelligence. In this exclusive piece, Cumming muses on the reasons why Eton has such a strong connection to the world of spycraft.  

Old Etonians seem to be everywhere. From Boris Johnson to Bear Grylls, Hugh Laurie to Matthew Pinsent, alumni of the world’s most famous school have colonised every nook and cranny of British public life. The Archbishop of Canterbury is an Old Etonian (OE). So too was a recent Commander of the SAS. Prince William, of course, attended the school in the 1990s alongside his brother, Harry, their time coinciding with Oscar and Emmy-winning actors Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston. 

What is less well-known is that Eton has been supplying Britain with spies for over a century. Sir Stewart Menzies, the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) during World War II, was an old Etonian. Ian Fleming, who worked for Naval Intelligence, was a pupil at the school in the 1920s. So too was Guy Burgess, the former MI5 officer who fled to Moscow with his fellow ‘Cambridge Spy’, Donald Maclean, in 1951. More recently, it has been alleged that Rory Stewart, the old Etonian who stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2019, was an MI6 officer in his youth. John le Carré, the doyen of spy novelists, taught at the school in the 1950s before joining MI5.

Even James Bond is an OE. In a case of art imitating life, Fleming – who had a difficult time at the school – described Bond’s career as “brief and undistinguished”. In You Only Live Twice, we discover that 007 was expelled after just two terms following some “alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids”. Plus ça change. 

What is it about Eton that makes it such a fertile breeding ground for spooks? Perhaps the answer lies in my own experience. I was a pupil there in the 1980s. Six years after I left, I was tapped up for a job with MI6 by an old family friend who – you guessed it – had been at Eton with my step-father. We met at a dinner party. A few days later he bumped into my mother in the local Waitrose and asked her if I had ever considered joining the Foreign Office. At the time, I was sitting on a First Class degree in English literature and working as a waiter in a failing London restaurant.

“He hasn’t,” my mother replied. “But he has now.” A few weeks later, I presented myself for interview at an address in central London. Halfway through the conversation, my interlocutor revealed that I was being assessed for a position with MI6. Officers, he told me with a steely gaze, are certainly not licensed to kill. More interviews followed, some exams and psychological assessments. Suffice to say, I did not get in. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I…?

My brief encounter with MI6 ignited a lifelong fascination with the secret world. I have often wondered why I was recommended for the job. Did I have some innate quality (or personality flaw) which suggested I would be suited to a career in intelligence? Or was it simply that I was an old Etonian?

Eton is the perfect laboratory for creating spies. The boys who go there have often been separated from their parents since the age of eight, having spent five years in preparatory boarding schools. Each pupil at Eton is given his own room, which serves to heighten this sense of solitude. At the same time, Eton is a highly competitive institution which rewards excellence, be it in academia, on the sports field or in the arts.

To thrive – or just to survive – in such an environment requires a boy to put on a mask; to become expert at building relationships and skilful at navigating the school’s many arcane rules and traditions. These are all qualities cherished in the intelligence world, where spies are required to cajole, charm and persuade people into doing things they would not ordinarily do; where it is sometimes necessary to assume a false identity; where an intelligence officer must sometimes work alone, often in extremely hostile circumstances. 

Eton also has its own private language. Just as the world of spying is filled with ‘moles’ and ‘dead drops’, ‘honeytraps’ and ‘wet jobs’, so too does Eton employ its own euphemistic patois. Teachers are ‘beaks’. Terms are called ‘halves’. Break in the morning is known as ‘Chambers’ and each yearly intake of boys as a ‘block’. In a sense, to move from Eton into MI6 is to move from one elite institution to another, swapping one tribe with its own secret language and code of honour for another. 

In Box 88, Lachlan Kite, the only child of a widowed hotelier from the west coast of Scotland, is sent to Alford, a school which bears a deliberate resemblance to the Eton I remember from the 1980s. Tough, imaginative and clever, Kite is talent-spotted in his final term for a job with BOX 88, a top secret Anglo-American spy agency investigating the links between a mysterious Iranian businessman and the father of Kite’s best friend.

Neither posh nor well-spoken, Kite is a run-of-the-mill Scottish teenager thrust into the strange ecosystem of Alford at the tender age of thirteen. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of MI5 and MI6 officers are not ex-public schoolboys. For a start, forty per cent of them are women. The political and economic rise of China, as well as the threat from Islamist terror, means that recruits now come from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. Eton is still a school for spies, but these days the old Etonian from Beirut or Beijing, fluent in Arabic or Mandarin, would be of far greater interest to the talent-spotters at MI6 than a blond-haired, blue-eyed stockbroker’s son from Godalming.

Today’s Eton is a much healthier and happier place than it was when le Carré was teaching there and Guy Burgess plotting to overthrow the British Establishment. For every Alexander Nix, the wily OE boss of Cambridge Analytica, there is an anonymous, unheralded old Etonian spy doing his best to keep us safe in our beds. There will always be Lachlan Kites who catch the eye of our intelligence services. The first-class education offered at Eton, allied to the unique culture and traditions of the school, mean that it will be producing spies for as long as Britain needs them. 

      

Comments

Richard Glenister

It.s a pity that alumni of Eton have " colonised every nook and cranny of British public life." I don,t think Johnson would make a good spy. Just look at his recently published emails. He's not that bright. He couldn't even get a First. You did. Did you say where from?
Your piece is readable but lightweight in a Johnson way. The skills from Eton seem to allow its [ do I need an apostrophe somewhere? ] products to turn out such material. I am not criticizing the skill but it doesn't get the nation very far. I suppose you are influencers but unable to assess your effect. In short , we can't follow the data.
Nevertheless , I hope your novel does well. View more

Richard Glenister
17th June 2021
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