One of Them

A fascinating insight into the culture of Eton College from the perspective of someone who didn’t come from the typical background of an Eton student.

Book title

One of Them

Author

Musa Okwonga

Standalone or series

Standalone (non-fiction autobiography/memoir)

First time reading this author?

Yes

Why I picked this

We talk a lot about social media bubbles or echo chambers these days, that people live within a world where they filter who and what they listen to and engage with so that it reinforces their own existing perceptions and biases. If that’s the case, then surely the fact that so many of our politicians, prime ministers and business leaders went to the same schools, and had similar life experiences, creates a similar bubble of perception and bias. This book about someone who also went to Eton College, but has a very different background to his fellow pupils, seemed like it could offer an interesting perspective on the situation.

Review copy or purchase

Thank you to the author, publishers Unbound and online book club Pigeonhole for the chance to read this for free. This is an honest and voluntary review.

What it’s about

Musa Okwonga attended Eton College, although he doesn’t come from the same background as many of the school’s most famous pupils. Looking back he reflects on his own experience of the school, and questions what impact that experience has on the politicians, prime ministers and business leaders who attended alongside him.

Review

If you think about Eton College, you probably associate it with politicians, royalty, and generations of families from a background of privilege and influence. But, while those make up most of the well known graduates of that school, they are not the only people who go there.

Musa Okwonga is one of those former pupils who doesn’t meet that mould. A young Black man from a predominantly working class town, Musa set his sights on attending Eton. He worked hard and succeeded academically and was able to qualify on that basis.

Looking back on his time at the school in this memoir, he reflects on the culture of Eton College and how that might influence those who were taught there and the perspectives they then bring to roles in corporate boardrooms and government.

I didn’t know much about Eton College beyond the name before I read this book. I am aware I have some biases against private schooling from my own background, so tend to dismiss it as an environment which is wholly unrelated to me. That perspective means I struggled to understand why Musa wanted to attend Eton in the first place. He didn’t know anyone else who had gone, but he picked up from stories he read and heard as a young man that an Eton education meant something special, it meant achievement, and he wanted to attain that for himself.

It says a lot for him and his family that he was supported to achieve that dream, and that he was able to do it. I suspect in many ways that his drive to attend the school means it held a different meaning for him than the pupils who went there because it was family tradition or because their parents had decided they should.

His descriptions of the school itself are positive. He talks about the values the pupils are taught, of independence, respect and hard work, all of which are positive attributes no one could argue with. But, as he speculates, these are taught within a sphere of privilege, without a real recognition that not everyone has those same opportunities. Suggesting perhaps that self-reliance, politeness and hard work are all that are needed to succeed. Rather than recognising that things aren’t always that simple, and we don’t all start from a level playing field.

It’s an interesting memoir, with insights into the education system and the attitude of the school and the individuals which are balanced overall. However, it is lacking in some depth. It feels like Musa is reluctant to share, which is an odd takeaway from a memoir. I’m not looking for him to spill his guts about his innermost feelings, but it did also sometimes feel that this is being written by a passive observer rather than an active participant in the school and his own life.

Still a very interesting book, and worth reading for anyone interested in the impact of so many leaders in civil and business life coming from one school.

Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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