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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

'Boys Weeklies' and the Undue Reverence of Privately-Educated, British, Political Elites

Some more reflections on the writings of George Orwell - 'Boys Weeklies' (Inside the Whale, March 11, 1940) critical essay included in 'All Art is Propaganda' by Keith Gessen - published by Mariner Books 2009

I think this was my favourite essay in the collection because it was a fascinating analysis of a cultural phenomenon which I was not aware of, but which explains a long-held belief of mine that the British public hold an undue reverence and lack of scrutiny of pompous, privately educated men in positions of power (ie. David Cameron #PigGate, Boris Johnson the father of unknown number of children and Jacob Rees-Lounging-on-the-House-of-Commons-benches-Mogg).

Orwell describes in detail the "boys weeklies", including Gem and Magnet which in the 1900s were 'the leading papers for boys', each including a 30-year-old serialised story of 'public school life' which represent the 'ancient and fashionable foundations of the type of Eton or Winchester' (page 65). I found this focus and glamorisation of public schools particularly fascinating in light of the continued esteem with which these institutions seem to be held in the 21st century. Orwell describes how oddly the characters 'continue week after week and year after year, never growing any older' (page 65) and how they continue to use the same slang words, despite (at the time of Orwell's writing) them being 30 years out of date. This contracts distinctly with the modern soap opera or serialised story, for example, the Archers which endeavours to adapt to contemporary phenomena, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, include current issues in its plot.

In his essay Orwell discusses the readership of these magazines admitting 'one can never be certain about this kind of thing' (page 71), but stating that from his anecdotal experience as a school teacher, the readers tend to be public school boys (especially 'cheap private schools') themselves (cementing in their own minds the cultural significance of their private education) but also by 'working-class boys as well' highlighting that 'I have known them to be read by boys whom one might expect to be completely immune from public-school "glamour".' (page 72). I believe this reveals a lot about British social class and psyche - young men, from working and middle class backgrounds were consuming this (and presumably other) propagandist content, which indoctrinated them to aspire to the "glamour" of public school education and "relate" to the privately educated characters. It certainly went some way to explaining the question which has plagued me for a while, as to why British people respect the likes of the Eton-educated David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson who make a public farce out of their own privilege throught their shambolic policy making and outrageous behaviour.

This essay really emphasised to me the power of this propaganda, although trite and frivolous in nature - if the public are exposed to content over a sustained period, they will begin to believe and respect its values.

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