After breakfast - dry cornflakes that nevertheless trampoline back up - the dons ask me whether Shakespeare's plays had to be based on real experience. White-faced, which doubtless they take for nerves, I say no. And don't elaborate. Next I have to meet the Principal, crossing his deep pile white carpet determined not to decorate it in a way that will never come out. Since my family are in Cyprus, he asks me if I know the Governor. Honestly and bovinely, I say no.
Somehow they didn't hold it against me.
Not so for lion-hearted Monty Modlyn in the 1940s:
You know, it's terribly difficult for an ordinary bloke who's been to an elementary school to get a job in life with any position in some big organisations. I remember applying for a job as an outside broadcast reporter for radio with the BBC, and being invited to attend an interview in Portland Place.
The Chairman of the Board was a very tall, slim gentleman, and even when he was sitting down he seemed about 6 feet tall. His name was Lotbiniere but he pronounced it Lowbinyare.(i) I had to go in front of him and two or three other people who were nearly as high, and he said. “Why do you want this job?” And I said, well, I think I've got the dash I'm able to chat, I like meeting people. At this time there were very few reporters on the BBC, just after the war.
Then he said to me, “May we ask you, what school did you go to?” When I filled in the application form I'd put down Westminster School, you see, so he said, “You went to Westminster School?” and I said, “Yes, Westminster Bridge Road Elementary LCC School.”
Well, the poor man nearly had an apoplectic fit. I thought he was going to drop down dead, and the three other people with him seemed nearly as bad. I felt that I wanted to rush forward and give them water from the jug which was on the table. “Westminster Bridge Road Elementary LCC school!” It was enough to give anyone in his position a nasty shock.
I discovered of course afterwards that he was an old Etonian, this Mr Lotbiniere, a very fine gentleman, well spoken, with a very distinguished position in BBC radio and later in television. I believe his sons are there now;(ii) it's a kind of tradition there, that there's always a Lotbiniere, or Lowbinyare if you pronounce it correctly.
I told the story to a producer many years afterwards, when he asked me why I never had a regular job with the BBC, but always had to get free-lance work. He was a fellow who worked for many years as a producer on the BBC. He told me that when he had to go before a board and was asked what school he went to, he'd been more on the ball than me and said he went to Canterbury School. There's a very big public school at Canterbury, and they all assumed he been there, but actually he went to a very ordinary school in Canterbury. When the Chairman of the Board said to him, “Did you know Mr So-and-So?” he said “Oh yes, very well.” “What a charming man,” said the Chairman of the Board. “Yes, isn't he just,” said my friend. “Right, now. Yes, the job’s yours,” said the Chairman.
Until this very day, my friend told me, they still don't realise that he never went to that famous Canterbury school. Very much the old tradition. (iii)
But just perhaps, they did indeed realise. Here is Northcote Parkinson who, having explained the traditional British method of candidate selection by family connection, goes on to discuss the Navy version:
The Board of Admirals were unimpressed by titled relatives as such. What they sought to establish was a service connection. The ideal candidate would reply to the second question ["To whom then are you related?"], “Yes, Admiral Parker is my uncle. My father is Captain Foley, my grandfather Commodore Foley. My mother's father was Admiral Hardy. Commander Hardy is my uncle. My eldest brother is a Lieutenant in the Royal Marines, my next brother is a cadet at Dartmouth and my younger brother wears a sailor suit. “Ah!” the senior Admiral would say. “And what made you think of joining the Navy?” The answer to this question, however, would scarcely matter, the clerk present having already noted the candidate as acceptable. Given a choice between two candidates, both equally acceptable by birth, a member of the Board would ask suddenly, “What was the number of the taxi you came in?” The candidate who said “I came by bus” was then thrown out. The candidate who said, truthfully, “I don't know,” was rejected and the candidate who said “Number 2351” (lying) was promptly admitted to the service as a boy with initiative. This method often produced excellent results. (iv)
Was there really a "So-and-So" at Canterbury? One wonders...
A major reason why such an approach could be useful, apart from the ability to draw on a well-developed network of social links, is that in the days before Welfare, kinship and friendship had iron rules and responsibilities - think how Lydia's foolishness in "Pride and Prejudice" risks social ruin for all the Bennets. A man from an old Navy family would be prepared to die horribly rather than dishonour his own people.
But I'm glad to have had that chance to be one of what, some years later, a fellow boarding-house guest scornfully referred to as "Lord Nuffield's thousands" - something that a generation before, pre the expansion of tertiary education, would have been almost unthinkable.
(ii) not excatly: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/anthony-joly-de-lotbiniere-1587366.html
(iii) Monty Modlyn, “Pardon My Cheek” (Hutchinson,1973), pp. 51-52
(iv) C Northcote Parkinson, "Parkinson's Law" (1957), chap. 5