Chapter 1 of James Hilton’s Autobiography, To You, Mr. Chips
[Hilton talks about his school experiences and impressions.]
If I use the word ‘I’ a good deal in these pages, it is not from self-importance, but because I would rather talk about my own schooldays than generalise about school. Schooling is perhaps the most universal of all experiences, but it is also one of the most individual. (Here I am, generalising already!) No two schools are alike, but more than that—a school with two hundred pupils is really two hundred schools, and among them, almost certainly, are somebody’s long-remembered heaven and somebody else’s hell. So that I must not conceal, but rather lay stress on the first personal pronouns. The schools I write of were my schools; to others at the same schools at the same time, everything may have been different.
I went to three schools altogether—an elementary school, a grammar school, and a public school. I matriculated at London University and spent four years at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Thus, from the age of six, when my mother led me through suburban streets for presentation to the headmistress of the nearest Infants’ Department, up to the age of twenty-three, when I left Cambridge supposedly equipped for the world and its problems, the process called my education was going on. Seventeen years—quite a large slice out of a life, when you come to think about it. And yet the ways I have earned my living since—by writing newspaper articles, novels, and film scenarios—were not taught me at any of these schools and colleges. Furthermore, though I won scholarships and passed examinations, I do not think I now remember more than twenty per cent of all I learned during these seventeen years, and I do not think I could now scrape through any of the examinations I passed after the age of twelve.
Nor was there any sort of co-ordination between my three schools and the university. For this, nobody was to blame in a free country. To some extent, I learned what I liked; to a greater extent, my teachers taught me what they liked. In my time I ‘took,’ as they say, practically every subject takable. At the elementary school, for instance, I spent an hour a week on ‘botany,’ which was an excuse for wandering through Epping Forest in charge of a master who, in his turn, regarded the hour as an excuse for a pleasant smoke in the open air. The result is that Botany to me today stands for just a few words like ‘calyx,’ ‘stamen,’ and ‘capillary attraction,’ plus the memory of lovely hours amidst trees and bracken. I do not complain.
Again, at the grammar school I spent six hours a week for three years at an occupation called ‘Chemistry,’ and all these hours have left me with nothing but a certain skill in blowing glass tubes into various shapes. In mathematics I went as far as the calculus, but I do not think I could be quite sure nowadays of solving a hard quadratic equation. Of languages I learned (enough to pass examinations in them) Latin, Greek, French, and German. I suppose I could still read Virgil or Sophocles with the help of a dictionary, but I do not do so, because it would give me no pleasure. My French and German are of the kind that is understood by sympathetic Frenchmen and Germans who know English.
The only school-learning of which I remember a good deal belongs to English Literature, History, and Music; but even in these fields my knowledge is roving rather than academic, and I could no longer discuss with any degree of accuracy the debt of Shakespeare to Saxo-Grammaticus or the statute De Heretico Comburendo. In fact, although I am, in the titular sense, a Scholar of my college, I do not feel myself to be very scholarly. But give me a new theory about Emily Bronte or read me a pamphlet about war and peace, and I will tell you whether, in my view, the author is worth listening to. To make up for all I have forgotten, there is this that I have acquired, and I call it sophistication since it is not quite the same thing as learning. It is the flexible armour of doubt in an age when too many people are certain.
What all this amounts to, whether my seventeen years were well spent, whether I am a good or a bad example of what schooling can do, whether I should have been a better citizen if I had gone to work at fourteen, I cannot say. I can only reply in the manner of the youth who, on being asked if he had been educated at Eton, replied: ‘That is a matter of opinion.’
The elementary school was in one of the huge dormitory suburbs of north-east London—a suburb which people from Hampstead or Chelsea would think entirely characterless, but which, if one lived in it for twenty years as I did, revealed a delicate and by no means unlikeable quality of its own. I am still a young man, and I suppose that for the next twenty years people will go on calling me ‘one of our younger novelists’; but whenever nowadays I pass by that elementary school, I realise what an age it is since I breathed its prevalent smell of ink, strong soap, and wet clothes. Just over a quarter of a century, to be precise, but it cannot be measured by that reckoning. The world today looks back on the pre-War world as a traveller may look back through a railway tunnel to the receding pinpoint of light in the distance. It is more than the past; it is already a legend.
To this legend my earliest recollections of school life belong. My father was the headmaster of another school in the same town, and I was a good deal petted and favoured by his colleagues. There were quite a few dirty and ragged boys in the class of seventy or so; the school itself was badly heated and badly lit; schoolbooks were worn and smeary because every boy had to follow the words with his finger as he read—an excusable rule, for it was the only way the teacher could see at a glance if his multitude were all paying attention. He was certainly not to blame because I found his reading lessons a bore. At the time that I was spelling out ‘cat-sat-on-the-mat’ stuff at school, I was racing through Dickens, Thackeray, and Jules Verne at home.
The school curriculum had its oddities. Mathematics was divided into Arithmetic, Algebra, and Mensuration. (Why this last had a special name and subdivision, I have no idea.) Geography consisted largely of learning the special names of capes, bays, countries, and county towns. When a teacher once told me that Cardigan Bay was the largest in Great Britain, I remember asking him promptly what was the smallest. He was somewhat baffled. But I have always been interested in miniature things, and perhaps I was right in supposing that England’s smallest bay, were it to be identified would be worth knowing. This teacher gave me full marks, however, because I attained great proficiency in copying maps with a fine-nibbed pen—a practice which enabled me to outline all the coasts with what appeared to be a fringe of stubbly hairs.
I was not so good at history because, in the beginning I could not make head or tail of most of it. When I read that So-and-so ‘gathered his army and laid waste to the country,’ I could not imagine what it meant. I had heard of gathering flowers and laying an egg, but these other kinds of gathering and laying were more mystifying, and nobody bothered to explain them to me. They remained just phrases that one had to learn and repeat. I was also puzzled by the vast number of people in history who were put to death because they would not change their religion; indeed, the entire fuss about religion throughout history was inexplicable to a boy whose father played the organ at a Congregational Church during the reign of Edward the Seventh.
Since then I have helped to write school history books and have found out for myself the immense difficulty of teaching the subject to children. It is not the words only that have to be simplified, but the ideas—and if you over-simplify ideas, you often falsify them. Hence the almost inevitable perversion of history into a series of gags, anecdotes, labels—that So-and-so was a ‘good’ king, that Henry the Eighth had six wives and Cromwell a wart on his nose, that the messenger came to Wolfe crying ‘They run, they run’ and that Nelson clapped the glass to his sightless eye. When later I studied history seriously for a university scholarship, I was continually amazed by the discovery that historical personages behaved, for the most part, with reasonable motivation for their actions and not like the Marx Brothers in a costume-play.
‘Scripture’ was another subject I did not excel at. It consisted of a perfunctory reading of a daily passage from the Bible; and our Bibles were always dirty, ragged, and bound in black. They left me with an impression of a book I did not want to handle, much less to read; it is only during the past ten years that I have read the Bible for pleasure. Our school Bibles also suffered from too small print; some of the words in the text were in italics and nobody explained to me that the reason for this concerned scholars more than schoolboys. Not long ago I heard a local preacher who seemed to me, when reading from the Psalms, to give certain sentences an unusual rhythm, and on inquiry I found that he had always imagined that the words in italics had to be accented! Why not print an abridged and large-print Bible for schools, consolidating groups of verses into paragraphs, and finally binding the whole as attractively as any other book? Maybe this has been done, and I am out of date for suggesting it.
Another oddity of my early schooldays was something called a free-arm system of hand writing—it consisted of holding the wrist rigid and moving the pen by means of the forearm muscle. I can realise now that somebody got his living by urging this fad on schoolmasters who liked to be thought modern or were amenable to sales-talk; I thought it nonsense at the time and employed some resolution in not learning it.
Perhaps the chief thing I did learn at my first school was that my father (then earning about six pounds a week) was a rich man. When, later on, I went to schools at which he seemed (in the same comparative sense) a poor man, I had the whole social system already sketch-mapped in my mind, and I did not think it perfect.
The school was perhaps a better-than-average example, both structurally and educationally, of its type; so I can only conjecture what conditions were like at the worst schools in the worst parts of London. I do know that there have been tremendous improvements since those days; that free meals and medical inspections have smoothed down the rougher differences between the poor man’s child and others; that, under Hitler and Stalin and Neville Chamberlain alike, the starved and ragged urchin has become a rarity. Such a trend is common throughout the world and we need not be complacent about it, since its motive is as much militaristic as humanitarian. But it does remain, intrinsically, a mighty good thing. I believe I would have benefited a lot from the improved elementary school of today. I might not have learned any more, but I should probably have had better teeth.
From the elementary school I went to a grammar school in the same suburb. It was an old foundation (as old as Harrow), but it had come down in the world. I had the luck to have for a form-master a man who was very deaf. I call it ‘luck,’ because he was an excellent teacher and would probably have attached himself to a much better school but for his affliction. As it was, his discipline was the best in the school—with the proviso, of course, that his eyes had to do vigilance for his ears. The result was that, in addition to Latin, English, and History, I gained in his class another proficiency that has never been of the slightest use to me since—ventriloquism.
I was devoted to that man (and I am sure he never guessed it). His frown could spoil my day, his rare slanting smile could light it up. I was conceited enough to think that he took some special interest in me, just because he read out my essays publicly to the class; and after I sent him an essay I used to picture the excitement he must feel on reading it. It did not occur to me that, like most good professionals (as opposed to amateurs), he did his job conscientiously but without hysterical enthusiasm, and that during out-of-school hours he would rather have a drink and a chat with a friend than read the best schoolboy’s essay ever written.
Once he wrote on the blackboard some sentences for parsing and analysis. Among them was: ‘Dreams such as thine pass now like evening clouds before me; when I think how beautiful they seem, ‘tis but to feel how soon they fade, how fast the night shuts in.’ I was so struck with this that I sat for a long time thinking of it; and presently, noticing my idleness, he asked me rather sharply why I wasn’t working. I couldn’t tell him, partly because I hardly knew, partly because any answer would have had to be shouted at the top of my voice on account of his deafness. I let him think I was just lazy, yet in my heart I never forgave him for not understanding.
Children are merciless—as much in what they expect as in what they offer. Not only will they bait unmercifully a schoolmaster who lacks the power to discipline them, but they lavish the most fantastic and unreasonable adorations. The utmost bond of lover and mistress is less than the comprehension a boy expects from a schoolmaster whom he has singled out for worship. I cannot imagine any more desperate situation for a school than the one in which this grammar school found itself. (It has since moved to another site, so nothing I say can bear any current reflection.) Flanked on one side by a pickle-factory, it shared its other aspects between the laundry of the municipal baths and a busy thoroughfare lined by market-stalls. Personally I rather liked the rococo liveliness of such surroundings. I grew used to the pervading smell of chutney and steaming bath-towels, to the cries of costers selling oranges and cough-drops, and it was fun to step out of the classroom on winter evenings and search a book-barrow lit by naphtha-flares, or listen to a Hindu peddling a corn-cure. And there was a roaring music hall nearby, with jugglers and Little Tich and Gertie Gitana; and on Friday nights outside the municipal baths a strange-eyed long haired soap-boxer talked anarchism. Somehow it was all rather like Nijni Novgorod, though I have never seen Nijni Novgorod.
I probably learned more in the street than I did in the school, but the latter did leave me with a good grammatical foundation in Latin, as well as a certain facility in the use of woodworking tools. (Since then I have usually made my own bookshelves.) One of the teachers made us learn three solid pages of Sir Walter Scott’s prose from The Talisman (a passage, I still remember, beginning—‘Beside his couch stood Thomas de Vaux, in face, attitude and manner the strongest possible contrast to the suffering monarch’); the intention, I suppose, was that we might somehow learn to write a bit more like Scott; but as I did not want to write like Scott at all, the effort of memory was rather wasted.
I worked hard at this grammar school, chiefly because homework was piled on by various masters acting independently of each other. I was a quick worker, but often I did not finish till nearly midnight, and how the slower workers managed I can only imagine. I have certainly never worked so hard in my life since, and it has often struck me as remarkable that an age that restricts the hours of child-employment in industry should permit the much harder routine of schoolwork by day and homework in the evenings. A twelve-hour shift is no less harmful for a boy or girl because it is spent over books; indeed, the overworked errand-boy is less to be pitied. Unless conditions have changed (and I know that in some schools they haven’t), there are still many thousands of child-slaves in this country.
The chief reason for such slavery is probably the life-and-death struggle for examination distinctions in which most schools are compelled to take part. And that again is based on the whole idea of pedagogy which has survived, with less change than one might think, from the Middle Ages. It is perhaps a pity that the average school curriculum fits a pupil for one profession better than any other—that of school-mastering. It is a pity because the clever schoolboy is tempted into the only profession in which his store of knowledge is of immediate practical value in getting him a job, and is then tempted to emphasise the value of passing on precisely that same knowledge to others. He is somewhat in the position of a shopkeeper whose aim is less to sell people what they need than to get rid of what he has in stock. The circle is vexatious, but I would not call it vicious, because I do not think that the whole or even the chief value of a schoolmaster can be measured by the knowledge he imparts. Much of that knowledge will be forgotten, anyway, and far more easily than the influence of a cultured and liberal-minded personality. Indeed, in a world in which the practical people are so busy doing things that had better not be done at all, there may even be some advantage in the sheer mundane uselessness of a classical education. Better the vagaries of ‘tollo’ than those of a new poison gas; better to learn and forget our Latin verbs than to learn and remember our experimental chemistry; better by far we should forget and smile than that we should remember and be sad.
So I defend (somewhat tepidly) a classical education for the very reason that so many people attack it. It is of small practical value in a world whose practical values are mostly wrong; it is ‘waste time’ in a world whose time had better be wasted than spent in most of its present activities. My Mr. Chips, who went on with his Latin lesson while the Zeppelins were dropping bombs, was aware that he was ‘wasting’ the possibly last moments of himself and his pupils, but he believed that at any rate he was wasting them with dignity and without malice.
The War broke out while I was still at the suburban grammar school; during that last lovely June of the pre-War era, I had won a scholarship to a public school in Hertfordshire. I remember visiting a charming little country town and being quartered there at a temperance hotel in company with other entrants. The school sent its German master to look after us—a pleasant, sandy-haired, kind-faced man with iron-rimmed spectacles and a guttural accent—almost the caricatured Teuton whom, two months later, we were all trying to hate. I forget his name, and as I never saw him or the school again, I do not know what happened to him.
I never saw the place again because my father, poring over the prospectus, discovered that the school possessed both a rifle-range and an Officers’ Training Corps—symbols of the War that, above all things, he hated. He had been a pacifist long before he ever called himself one (indeed, he never liked the term), and it is literally true to say that he would not hurt a fly—for my mother could never use a fly-swat if he were in the same room. Yet I know that if anyone had broken into our house and attacked my mother or me—the kind of problem put two years later by truculent army officers to nervous conscientious objectors—it would have been no problem at all to my father; he would have died in battle. He was no sentimentalist. When a bad disciplinarian on his teaching staff once asked him what he (my father) would say if a boy squirted ink at him, my father answered promptly: ‘It isn’t what I’d say, it’s what I’d do.’ And he would have—though I cannot imagine that he ever had to. Boys in his presence always gave an impression of enjoying liberty without taking liberties. He was a strong man, physically—a good swimmer, a good cricketer, nothing of the weakling about him; and to call him a pacifist is merely to exemplify his fighting capacity for lost causes. It never occurred to me then, and it rarely occurs to me now, that any of his ideas were fundamentally wrong. He was and happily is still a mixture of Cobbett and Tagore with a dash of aboriginal John Bull.
I was just fourteen then—the age at which most boys in England leave school and go to work. It was the first autumn of the War, when our enthusiasm for the Russian steamroller led us to deplore the fact that we could not read Dostoevski in the original; so with this idea in mind, I began to learn Russian and tried for a job in a Russian bank in London. Worse still, I nearly got it. If I had, it is excitingly possible that I should have been sent to Russia and been there during the Revolution; but far more probable that I should have added figures in a City office until the bank eventually went out of business.
My father, however, was beginning to dally again with the idea of a public school for me, and soon conceived the idea that since he could not make up his mind, I should choose a school for myself. So I toured England on this eccentric but interesting quest and learned how to work out train journeys from York to Cheltenham and from Brighton to Sherborne, how to pick good but cheap hotels in small towns, and how to convince a headmaster that if I didn’t get a good impression of his school, I should unhesitatingly cross it off my list. When I look back upon these visits, I am inclined to praise my father for a stroke of originality of which both he and I were altogether unaware. It would, perhaps, be a good thing if boys were given more say in choosing their own schools. It certainly would be a good thing if headmasters cared more about the impressions they made on boys and less about the impressions they made on parents. Only a few of the headmasters to whom I explained my mission were elaborately sarcastic and refused to see me.
Eventually I spent a week-end at Cambridge and liked the town and university atmosphere so much that I finally made the choice, despite the fact that the school there possessed both the rifle-range and the cadet corps. Relying on the fact that my father was both forgetful and unobservant, I said nothing about this at home, got myself entered for the school, and joined it half-way through the summer term of 1915.
You will here remark that your sympathies are entirely with the headmasters who were sarcastic, and that I must have been an exceptionally priggish youngster. I shall not disagree, except to remark that, prig or not, I am grateful to those pedagogues who showed me over their establishment with as much bored and baffled courtesy as they might have accorded to a foreign general or the wife of a speech-day celebrity.
Not so long ago I read a symposium contributed by various young and youngish writers about their own personal experiences at public schools. These experiences ranged from the mildly tolerable to the downright disgusting; indeed, the whole effect of the book was to create pity for any sensitive, intelligent youngster consigned to such environment. I do not for a moment dispute the sincerity of this symposium. I am prepared to believe almost any specific detail about almost any specific school. Of my own school I could say, for instance, that some of its hygienic conditions would have aroused the indignation of every Socialist M.P. if only they had been found in a Durham or a South Wales mining village. I could specify, quite truthfully, that the main latrines were next to the dining-room; that we were apt to find a drowned rat in the bath-tub if we left the water to stand overnight; that in winter the moisture ran down walls that had obviously been built without a dampcourse; that the school sanatorium was an incredible Victorian villa at the other end of the town, hopelessly unsuited to its purpose. These things have been remedied since, but they were true enough in my time—and what of it? Their enumeration cannot present a true impression of my school or of any school, because a school is something more than the buildings of which it is composed.
I know that a visiting American would have been sheerly horrified by the plumbing and drainage, but no more horrified than I am when, having duly admired some magnificent million-dollar scholastic outfit on the plains of the Middle West, I learn that it offers a degree in instalment-selling and pays its athletic coach twice as much as its headmaster. This seems to me the worst kind of modern lunacy. Better to have rats in the bathtub than bats in the belfry.
I am, as I said just now, prepared to believe almost any specific detail about almost any specific school. But a book or even a page of specific details must be considered with due allowance for the age and character of the writer. Many men after middle-life remember nothing but good about their schools. Their prevalent mood by that time has become so nostalgic for past youth that anything connected with it acquires a halo, so that even a beating bitterly resented at the time becomes, in retrospect, a rather jolly business. (Most of the ‘jolly’ words for corporal punishment—‘spank’, ‘whack,’ etc., were, I suspect, invented by sentimentalists of over forty.) The kind of man who feels like this is often the kind that makes a material success of life and whose autobiography, written or ghost-written, exudes the main idea that ‘school made him what he was’—than which, of course, he can conceive no higher praise.
On the other hand, in reading the school reminiscences of youths who have just left it, one should remember that the typical schoolboy is inarticulate, and that by putting any such reminiscences on paper the writer is proving himself, ipso facto, to be untypical. In other words, recollections of schools are apt to be written either by elderly successful men who remember nothing but good, or by youths who, by their very skill in securing an audience at such an early age, argue themselves to have been unlike the average schoolboy.
There is nothing for it, therefore, but to be frankly personal and leave others to make whatever allowances they may think necessary.
I am thirty-seven years of age. I do not think I am old enough yet to feel that school was a good place because I was young in it, or self-satisfied enough to feel that school was a good place because it ‘made me what I am.’ (In any case, I do not think it did make me what I am, whatever that may be.) But I enjoyed my schooldays, on the whole, and if I had a son I dare say I would send him to my old school, if only because I would not know what else to do with him.
I was not a typical schoolboy, and the fact that I was happy at (shall we say?) Brookfield argues that the school tolerated me even more generously that I tolerated it. Talking to other men about their schooldays, I have often thought that Brookfield must have been less rigid than many schools in enforcing conformity to type. Perhaps the fact that it was, in the religious sense, a Nonconformist school helped to distill a draught of personal freedom, that even wartime could not dissipate. At any rate, I did not join the almost compulsory Officers’ Training Corps, despite the fact that the years were 1914-1918. My reasons for keeping out (which I did not conceal) were simply that I disliked military training and had no aptitude for it. Lest anyone should picture my stand as a heroic one, I should add that it was really no stand at all; nobody persecuted me—if they had, no doubt I should have joined.
When later I was called up for military service I responded, chiefly because my friends were in the army and I guessed I should be happier with them there than on committees of anti-war societies with people whose views I mainly held. If this seems an illogical reason, I shall agree, with the proviso that it is also a more civilised reason than a desire to kill Germans.
I did not conceal my views about the War, but I did conceal my general feeling about games. I was, in this respect, a complete hypocrite. I have never been able to take the slightest interest in most games, partly because I am no good at them myself; I like outdoor pursuits such as walking, sea-bathing, and mountaineering, but the competitive excitements of cup-finals and test matches bore me to exasperation. The only contest even remotely athletic into which I ever entered with zest was the saying of the Latin grace at my Cambridge college; it was a long grace, and I was told (how accurately I cannot say) that I lowered the all-time speed record from sixteen to fourteen and a fifth seconds. At Brookfield, however, grace was said by the masters, so that my prowess in this field remained unsuspected, even by myself. The craze for clipping fifths of seconds raged elsewhere. Most of my friends were tremendously concerned about ‘the hundred yards’ and the various School and House matches, and I would not for the world have let them know that I cared nothing about such things at all. Sometimes, if there was absolutely no one else left to fill the team, I took part in some very junior house match, and I always hoped that my side would lose, because then I should not have to play in any subsequent game. Outwardly, however, I pretended to share all the normal enthusiasms over victory and despairs over defeat; and I think I carried it off pretty well. There is always some ultimate thing you must do when you are in Rome, even if the Romans are exceptionally broad-minded.
I never received corporal punishment at Brookfield; I was never bullied; I never had a fight with anybody; and the only trouble I got into was for breaking bounds. I used to enjoy lazy afternoons at the Orchard, Grantchester, with strawberries and cream for tea; I liked to attend Evensong at King’s College Chapel; I liked to smoke cigarettes in cafés. Most of these diversions were against school rules, and I have an idea that often when I was seen breaking them, the observer tactfully closed an eye. Perhaps it was realised that my desire for personal freedom did not incline me to foment general rebellion. Many things that I care about do not attract others at all, and awareness of this has always made me reluctant to exalt my own particular cravings into the dimensions of a crusade. On the whole, I thought the school discipline reasonable, if occasionally irksome, and when I transgressed I did so without either resentment or regret.
Strangely, perhaps, since I was not ‘the type,’ I was quite happy at Brookfield. The very things I disliked (games, for instance) brightened some days by darkening others; I have rarely been so happy in my life as when, taking a hot bath after a football game in which I hardly touched the ball, I reflected that no one would compel me to indulge in such preposterous pseudo-activity for another forty-eight hours. I had many acquaintances, and a few close friends with whom my relationship was as unselfish as any I have experienced since in my life. I do not think I had any particular enemies, and I got on well enough with authority. Despite the sexual aberrations that are supposed to thrive at boarding-schools, I never succumbed to any, nor was I ever tempted. I played the piano dashingly rather than accurately at speech-day concerts, breakfasted with the Head once a term, argued for or against capital punishment (I forget which) in the school debating society, and cycled many windy miles along the fenland lanes.
The magic of youth is in the sudden unfolding of vistas, the lifting of mists from the mile-high territory of manhood. It sometimes falls to me nowadays to read a fine new book by a new writer, but never to discover a whole shelf of new books at once—as happened after I had first read Clayhanger. New worlds are for the young to explore; later one is glad of a new room or even of a view from a new window. That the worlds were not seen in proper focus, while the room or the view may be, does not entirely compensate for the slowing of excitement—for the loss of a mood in which one hid The New Machiavelli inside the chapel hymn-book, or read Major Barbara by flashlight under the bedclothes. To such ecstasies youth could add a passionate awareness of being alive, and—during the years 1914-1918—being alive by a miracle.
Looking back on those days I see that they had an epic quality, and that, after all, the school experiences of my generation were unique. Behind the murmur of genitive plurals in dusty classrooms and the plick-plock of cricket balls in the summer sunshine, there was always the rumble of guns, the guns that were destroying the world that Brookfield had made and that had made Brookfield. Sometimes these guns were actually audible, or we fancied they were; every weekday there was a rush to the newspapers, every Sunday a batch of names read out to stilled listeners. The careful assessments of schoolmasters were blotted out by larger and wilder markings; a boy who had been expelled returned as a hero with medals; those whose inability to conjugate avoir and être seemed likely in 1913 to imperil a career were to conquer France’s enemies better than they did her language; offenders gated for cigarette-smoking in January were dropping bombs from the sky in December. It was a frantic world; and we knew it even if we did not talk about it. Slowly, inch by inch, the tide of war lapped to the gates of our seclusion; playing-fields were ploughed up for trenches and drill-grounds; cadet-corps duties took precedence over classroom studies; the school that had prepared so many beloved generations for life was preparing this one, equally beloved, for death.
When I said just now that I disliked military training and had no aptitude for it, I was putting the matter mildly. I dislike regimentation of any kind, and I loathe war, not only for its enthronement of the second-rate—in men, standards, and ideals. In the declension of spirit in which England fought, it is correct to say that we began with Rupert Brooke and ended with Horatio Bottomley. But at Brookfield the loftier mood prevailed even when it was no more than a cellophane illusion separating us from the visible darkness without.
On Sundays we attended Chapel and heard sermons that, as often as not, preached brotherly love and forgiveness of our enemies. On Mondays we watched cadets on the football-field bayoneting sacks with special aim for vital parts of the human body. This paradox did not, I am sure, affect most Brookfield boys as it did me. To be frank, it obsessed me; I would wonder endlessly whether Sunday’s or Monday’s behaviour were the more hypocritical. I have changed my attitude since. That Brookfield declined to rationalise warfare into its code of ethics while at the same time sending its sons to fight and die, seems to me now to have been pardonably illogical and creditably inconsistent; looking round on the present-day world of 1938, I can see that countries where high ideals are preached but not practised are at least better off than countries in which low ideals are both preached and practised.
Many of us at Brookfield, like myself, were too young—just too young—to see actual service in the War; yet during our last school years we lived under the shadow, for we knew or took for granted that if the War lasted we should be illogical and inconsistent in the same English way. Such tragic imminence hardly worried us, but it gave a certain sharpness to all the joys and a certain comfort for all the trivial hardships of school-life—gave also, in my own case, the clearest focus for memory. There is hardly a big event of those years that I do not associate with a Brookfield scene; Kitchener’s death reminds me of cricketers hearing the news as they fastened pads in the pavilion; the Russian Revolution gives me the voice of a man, now dead, who talked about it instead of giving his usual geography lesson; the Lusitania sinking reminds me of early headlines, read hastily over a master’s shoulder at breakfast. I composed a sonnet on the Russian Revolution, which my father had the temerity to send to Mr. A. G. Gardiner, eliciting from him the comment that it ‘showed merit.’ I also wrote a poem on the Lusitania which appeared in the Cambridge Magazine, a pacifist weekly run by Mr. C. K. Ogden, who has since distinguished himself by the invention of Basic English. These things I recount, not for vainglory (for they were not particularly good poems), but to reveal something of the mood of Brookfield, in which a boy could be eccentric enough to write poetry and subversive enough to write pacifist and revolutionary poetry without being either persecuted or ostracised. As a matter of fact, I was editor of the school magazine, and wrote for it articles, stories, and poems of all kinds and in all moods. Nobody tried to censor them; nobody tried to depose or harass me. Looking back on this genial indifference, it seems to me that Brookfield in wartime was not only less barbarian than the world outside it, but also less barbarian than many institutions in what we have since chosen to call peacetime. Is there a school in Soviet Russia where a student may offer even the mildest printed criticism of Stalin? Is there a debating society throughout all Nazi Germany that would dare to allow a Socialist to defend his faith? I suspect that nowadays the boys of Brookfield, members predominantly of the despised bourgeois capitalist class, are nevertheless free to be Marxian or Mosleyite if they like, and no doubt a few of them are writing wild stuff which in twenty years’ time they will either forget or regret. Let us hope, however, that they will not forget the spirit of tolerance which today is in such grave peril because it is in the very nature of tolerance to take tolerance for granted.
I do not know whether this spirit obtained at other schools besides Brookfield. Probably at some it did and at others it didn’t. But I stress it because the quality of any institution can be tested by the extent to which it withstands attack without compromising too much with the attacker. Granted that during the War all civilised institutions were subtly contaminated, which of them passed such a test most creditably? Perhaps we can say that England as a whole, though suffering vast changes, has survived more recognisably than any other country. She is more than the ghost of her former self—she has a good deal still left of the substance. Alone among the countries that participated substantially in the War, her national life is still reasonably well anchored. Mr. Chips, if he were alive (and I have reason to believe he is, in a few schools), could still give the same lessons as in 1908 (not an ideal educational programme, but one that at least attests the durability of a tradition), could still make the same jokes to a new generation that still understands them, could still offer himself in the kindly role of jester, critic, mentor, and friend. No upstart authority has yet compelled him to click his heels and begin the day with juju incantations of Heils and Vivas. He can still say, without fear of rubber truncheons: ‘Umph . . . Mr. Neville Chamberlain . . . umph . . . I used to know his father when he was the wild man of Born—I mean Birmingham . . . but his sons have turned—umph—respectable. . . .’
This spirit of free criticism, even if it expresses itself no more momentously than as a classroom squib, is the sort of thing that makes English Conservatives liberal and keeps English Socialists conservative. It is the spirit that made Baldwin protest against Fascist brutality at the Albert Hall, that gives Citrine misgivings about Russia, and that united ninety per cent of Englishmen in fervent if soon-forgotten admiration of Dimitrov. It is the spirit that made Mr. Chips protest amidst the bomb explosions: ‘These things that have mattered for a thousand years are not going to be snuffed out because some stink-merchant invents a new kind of mischief.’
Unfortunately, it looks as if they are going to be snuffed out. Mr. Chips was too valiant an optimist to face the tragic impasse of the twentieth century—the fact that civilisation, because in its higher manifestations it is essentially organised for peace, cannot long survive war—even a war supposedly undertaken on its behalf. There can be no war to end wars, because all wars begin other wars. There can be no such thing as a war to save democracy, because all wars destroy democracy. There could have been a peace to save what was left of democracy, but the chance of that came and went in 1919—the saddest year in all the martyrdom of man.
Here the reader may protest that much of the above arguments depends on the assumption that England and our institutions deserve to survive. There was a time when I would not by any means have taken this for granted. It was possible, then, to feel that the pre-War world, having encouraged or permitted a system that led to catastrophe, might as well be destroyed completely to make way for newer and better things. (It was possible, then, to say ‘newer and better’ as glibly as one says ‘spick and span.’) It was possible, then, to decry the public schools as the bulwark of a system that had had its day, to attack them for their creation of a class snobbery, to lampoon their play-the-game fetish and their sedate philistinism. That these attacks were partly justified one may as well admit. The public schools do create snobbery, or at any rate the illusion of superiority; you cannot train a ruling class without such an illusion. My point is that the English illusion has proved, on the whole, humaner and more endurable, even by its victims, than the current European illusions that are challenging and supplanting it; that the public-school Englishmen who flock to a Noel Coward revue to join in laughs against themselves are patterned better than the polychromed shirtwearers of the Continent who not only cannot laugh but dare not allow laughter. Granted that the long afternoon of English imperialism is over, that dusk is falling on a dominion wider if less solid than Rome’s. Granted that the world is tired of us and our solar topees and our faded kip-lingerie, that it will not raise a finger to save us from eclipse. Time will bring regrets, if any. For myself, I do not object to being called a sentimentalist because I acknowledge the passing of a great age with something warmer than a sneer.
But the accusation of sentimentality comes oddly from those who extol the Russian collectivist as Rousseau extolled the noble savage. In some circles today it is even fashionable to decry the more literate occupations altogether and to redress the undoubted middle-class overweight in pre-War art by refusing hallmarks to anything modern that cannot call itself ‘proletarian.’ This forces me to a confession (snobbish if you insist) that in my opinion a man need not be ashamed of having been educated—even at Brookfield and Cambridge. When I reflect on the manner in which the Gadarene pace of 1938 is being set by an ex-house-painter, I do not need to apologise for being an ex-public schoolboy (comic phrase though it is), and I can even turn with relief to the visionary ideals of a man whose reputation, faded today, will bloom again as we remember him more and more wistfully in the years ahead. And Woodrow Wilson was an ex-schoolmaster. Let history write the epitaph—England, liberalism, democracy were not so bad—not so good, either, on all occasions, but better, maybe, in a longer retrospect. Some of us may even survive to make such a retrospect. All over the world today the theme and accents of barbarism are being orchestrated, while the technique of mass-hypnotism, as practised by controlled press and radio, is being schooled to construct a façade of justification for any and every excess. The English illusion is dying; ‘on dune and headland sinks the fire.’ But there are other and fiercer fires. It is remarkable (if only a coincidence) that the first victims of the new ferocities have been countries in which there is a long tradition of cruelty (Chinese tortures, Ethiopian mutilations, Spanish bull-rings); one is almost tempted to a belief that the soil can be soured by ancestral lusts, and that English freedom from actual warfare within her own territories for two centuries has been, in effect, a cleansing and a purification. Perhaps this is too mystical for proof; perhaps it is just nonsense, anyway. But it is true that violence begets violence, that delight in the infliction of suffering is a poison in the bloodstream of nations as well as of individuals, and that soon we may be faced with the prospect of a world impelled to its doom by sadists and degenerates. In the next war (that is to say, in the war that has already begun) there will be no heroes charging splendidly to death because ‘someone has blundered,’ but grey-faced morituri, prone in their steel coffins, diving to kill and be killed because, in the reckoning of authority, no one has blundered at all.
Do not think I am blind to the faults of the age of which Mr. Chips and his type were the product as well as the makers. Its imperialism was, at its worst, smug, hypocritical, and predatory. Its laissez-faire capitalism resulted in such horrors as child-slavery in factories. Its vices were as solid as its virtues. But one fact does emerge from any critical analysis of the period beginning, roughly, with the Queen’s accession and ending with her death—that it was possible, during this time, for an intelligent man in Western Europe to look around his world and believe that it was getting better. He could see the spread of freedom, in thought and creed and speech, and—even more important—the spread of the belief that such an increase of freedom was an ultimate goal, even if it could not be immediately conceded. He could watch the transplantation of parliamentary government into lands where, though it might not wholly suit the soil, few doubted it would eventually flourish. He could believe that mechanical inventions were spreading civilisations because the chief mechanical invention of the time, the railway, was not (like the aeroplane) diabolically apt for use in warfare. He could observe each year new sunderings of barriers between lands until traveller and student could roam through Europe more freely than at any time since the break-up of Christendom.
True that the boy Dickens toiled in a blacking-factory, but he grew up free to scarify the system that had forced him to it; he had been a child-slave, but he was never a man-slave. True that Huxley was attacked for teaching that men and monkeys were somewhat the same; but he was never exiled for refusing to teach that Jews and Gentiles were altogether different. Scientists may have incurred the wrath of bishops for spreading what the latter considered to be evolutionary nonsense; they were never ordered by government to teach what every acknowledged authority considers to be Aryan nonsense. And while Karl Marx laboriously constructed his time-bomb to explode the bourgeoisie, his victims rewarded him with a ticket to the British Museum instead of a Leipzig trial, and a peaceful grave in Highgate Cemetery instead of a trench in front of a firing-squad.
Occasionally throughout the ages, the clouds of history show a rift and through it the sun of human betterment shines out for a few deceptive moments over a limited area. The Greece of Pericles was one such time and place; parts of China under certain dynasties offered the spectacle of another; Paraguay under the Jesuit Communists was perhaps a third. These few have little in common save a crust of security over the prevalent turbulence of mankind; the crust was thin and its promise of permanence false. But Victorian England sealed the volcano more stoutly than it had ever been sealed before, so that a man and his son and his son’s son might live and die in the belief that the world would not witness certain things again. The crust, indeed, was such that even after the first shattering its debris is something to cling to—until the next.
All of which may sound a huge digression in a book dedicated to the memory of an old schoolmaster. But for me it is not so. I cannot think of my schooldays without the image of that incredible background—Zeppelins droning over sleeping villages, Latin lessons from which boys stepped into the brief lordliness of a second lieutenancy on the Somme. I cannot forget the little room where my friends and I fried sausages over a gas-ring and played George Robey records on the gramophone, and how, in that same little room with the sausages frying and the gramophone playing, one of us received a telegram with bad news in it, and how we all tried to sympathise, yet in the end arrived at no better idea than to open a hoarded tin of pineapple chunks to follow the sausages. I cannot forget cycling so often over the ridge of the Gogmagogs (which, as Mr. Chips always informed us, was the highest land between Brookfield and the Ural Mountains), and the soft fenland rain beginning to fall on Cambridge streets at dusk, with old men fumbling in and out of bookshops, and young men, spent after route- marches, scampering over ancient quadrangles. Those days were history, but most of us were too young to be historians, too young to disassociate the trivial from the momentous—gnarled desks and war-headlines, photogravure generals and the school butler who stood at the foot of the dormitory staircase and at lights-out warned sepulchrally—‘Time, Gentlemen, Time.’ It was Time in a way that so many of us could not realise. That warning marked the days during which, on an average, ten thousand men were killed.
Mr. Chips would walk between the lines of beds in the dormitory and turn out the lights. He was an old man then, and it was impossible to think he had ever been much younger. He seemed already ageless, beyond the reach of any time that could be called. Schooldays are a microcosm of life—the boy is born the day he enters the school and dies the day he leaves it; in between are youth, middle-age, and the elderly respectability of the sixth-form. But outside this cycle stands the schoolmaster, watching the three-year lifetimes as they pass him by, remembering faces and incidents as a god might remember history. An old schoolmaster, if he is well-liked and has dignity, is rather like a god. You can joke about him behind his back, but you must acknowledge him to his face while you love him a little carelessly in your hearts. This has been the relationship of good men and good gods since the world began.
There was no single schoolmaster I ever knew who was entirely Mr. Chips, but there were several who had certain of his attributes and achieved that best reward of a well-spent life—to grow old beloved. One of them was my father. He did not train aristocrats to govern the Empire or plutocrats to run their fathers’ businesses, but he employed his wise and sweetening influence just as valuably among the thousands of elementary school boys who knew and know him still in a London suburb.
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