Answering a call.
Autobiography is hard. Let's start with history. Dulwich College is a public (as in private) school for boys in Southwark, southeast London. It's partly a boarding school, but most of its pupils aren't boarders. It was founded in 1619 by Edward Alleyn, an actor and contemporary of Christopher Marlowe. It was originally intended to provide an education for poor boys, but the class system being what it is, by the nineteenth century it was thoroughly exclusive. Today, it's academically selective, very expensive (between £5,000 and £10,000 a term, and three terms to each year), and generally thought of as a minor-but-respectable sort of public school, if not one mentioned in the same breath as Eton, Harrow or Rugby. Notable alumni include writers PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, explorer Ernest Shackleton, and several dozen rugby players and cricketers. Its buildings have been painted by Pisarro and used for filming a lot of things requiring a musty old English atmosphere. The New College - the buildings of which Pisarro was so fond - was built in 1870 to a design by the more obscure son of Charles Barry, the architect responsible for redesigning the Houses of Parliament. The New College is still used for teaching, while the Old College is mostly still in use as a chapel. All of this detail and more can be found on the college's website, and if you arrange a tour on an open day you can hear it from an enthusiastic teenager in a faintly ridiculous blazer.
A sense of place is a harder thing to pin down, though. I went to Dulwich for slightly less than eight years (2000 - 2008) in all, from the age of nine to seventeen. Even so, I'm still not sure I can fully explain the nature of the place. I have some obvious biases; it was a formative influence on me, for good or ill. So I'll go with what I remember, and hope that proves useful. The first thing that comes to mind is that it's like stepping into another world. That's probably a child's perspective at work, but at the time it seemed like a bubble in south London, a leafy little enclave with its boundaries marked by the tollbooth on College Road, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the neighbouring prep school, and a vaguely neutral corridor stretching as far as East Dulwich station. A separate world, with separate rules, a separate language - like all the public schools, Dulwich has enthusiastically developed its own argot; one that in its own way, sets out its difference from the area around it. Assuming no change with the passage of time - generally a safe bet - homework is Prep, teachers are Masters, classes are Forms, the last year is the Remove, the tuck shop is the Commissariat, the dining hall is the Buttery and PE is Games. The comprehensive down the road didn't have these things, but that was outwith the bounds of the known universe, apart from when its pupils were mugging ours when they walked home. Possibly we pitied them for not being part of our world. They didn't have our words, but then on balance some of them had our phones, and in hindsight I think they probably got the better end of the deal.
None of which really answers the question I'm trying to answer, though. What's it like? Well, it looked different from the inside. Partly that's just youth, but there is, I think, a fundamental strangeness to it. You're occupying a very different society to most kids your age. That can be comforting or limiting, I suppose. I think it can be easy to lose yourself in it, take it too seriously. Dulwich has long been an institution that places a lot of stock in seriousness. Being made to feel like part of an elite is an intoxicating thing, enough that you start to place a serious premium on things like - well, for instance, the right to wear a faintly ridiculous blazer. That's something that can seriously skew your perspective on the outside world.
As far as it goes, if you want a son to get a good, if traditional, academic education, he'll almost certainly get it. Five years of Latin and some ancient Greek supplied the necessary amount of class markers, but more usefully, I learnt English, History, French and German from genuinely talented, interested teachers, and apparently enough of it's stuck for it to pass for erudition in a dim light. Beyond that, though? Dulwich is a sporting school; it believes its job is to create men. This is something it tries to do predominantly by making boys run around, get covered in mud, and then shower together; something which excels at creating situational homosexuality, but is of more dubious value when it comes to instilling leadership. It's all a rather Victorian healthy-mind-in-a-healthy-body approach, and the effect can be a little militaristic. There's a not insignificant amount of hymn-singing, flag-waving nationalism, something not diminished by the posthumous portraits of young officers who went straight out of the school and into the trenches.
Did any of it make me a leader? Did it fuck. I was excused games almost every week until I discovered fencing. I was a resolutely unimpressive member of the cadet force. I couldn't sing in the choir, play for the 1st XV (or the second or third) or star in a play. I read books and I got by, for a while. I did end up with a kind of relativistic patriotism, and a stubborn ideal of service I've been working on ignoring, but I'm not sure it's fair for Dulwich to lay claim to either. What I will give Dulwich credit for, though, is for making me into an honest-to-God-and-all-the-saints homosexual. That sounds a little strange for a place whose institutional response to a crush on a boy was cold showers and a lot of running (unless it was coming from a member of staff, in which case it was a phone call to the police and a hope it wouldn't make it into the Telegraph). But the thing about me is that, despite my best attempts to eradicate it, I have a rather Catholic idea that you have to have suffered in some way to earn your bona fides. So, in figuring out that I liked boys and not girls, and that it wasn't going away no matter how hard I tried, and in feeling like a desperate, awful pervert for it, I'd ultimately end up feeling rather validated. One of my favourite poems has the line:
is working toward you
right now, and
I mean you
and nobody but
I feel in some ways lucky that I got to experience that feeling early. That's also a kind of rationalisation. The experience nearly killed me - it didn't - so therefore I must be a stronger person, because otherwise what was the point?
Still haven't answered the question, though. So what is Dulwich to me? It's a younger me, walking to the gates on a brisk winter morning, stepping on frozen puddles in new shoes and smiling as they cracked like a creme brulee. It's crawling, desperate embarrassment at not knowing how to translate a Latin sentence. It's me rolling around on the playing fields with another boy on a warm summer day, allegedly practising rugby tackles in Games and opening my eyes still laughing to see the class and teacher staring down at us. It's me being an arsehole to people because we were always taught that the best defence was a good offence. It's a prefect grabbing my chin and holding it inches away from his face for kicking a football in the wrong direction, and wondering if I was enjoying it as much as he was. It's a cadet sergeant major telling me to smile on parade because I looked too serious. It's an English teacher calling an essay limp-wristed and doing a little pantomime, voice and all, to emphasise the point. It's playing illicit blackjack in the cloisters. It's almost spilling a milkshake on one of those war hero portraits. It's reading Primo Levi in English and then going out to march up and down a square in uniform. It's being sixteen and listening to that one song at the station while the leaves swirled around my feet.
That's my sense of place. If there's anything more to be said, it's that these things are always idiosyncratic. They're always contradictory, because life is made of contradictions and if you can't see them you're not looking hard enough. And they're impossible to divorce from the person. Especially here. Because when I look back and ask myself what it was like, I keep thinking of one of those ice-covered puddles, fracturing into pieces, each one pointing in a different direction. That's the best I can explain it.