Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night …
I find myself surprised to discover that the boarding school* I was so glad to leave in 1954 is actually still open for business, run by the same headmaster and his wife. Monty and Nora Brummell-Hicks haven’t aged at all. Old boys are invited to come and visit. “Do come and stay a while, as guests. A pleasure to see you again.” After all these years! I never thought it possible.
In waking life, my memories have worn thin and I’ve managed to contact less than a handful of survivors from those days. They remember even less. I just have a set of mental snapshots, especially of various punishments meted out, often unjustly. And, to help with the timeline, hearing occasional news on the radio: events in the Korean War, the announcement of King George VI’s death. Not a single photo of those years, in school or out. Almost erased from history.
Stepping across the threshold into this simulacrum, this vivid dream, I discover that that the terms and conditions for returning as a guest are just like those applicable then to boarders—perhaps staff too. There is no escape: the commitment is binding. In return for their hospitality and care, I am to give them my precious years. I had a day or two in mind, at most. Now I’m to be a student teacher, an “usher”, to do whatever they want of me. After entering like a curious and unwitting animal, I find myself trapped.
What can I do? Accept. Knuckle down. Try and see it their way. There must be some good in all this. One day I’m in a corridor outside the class I’m supposed to taking for a lesson. Staff and boys roam back and forth chattering. I hear an angry shouting, an hysterical rant. I’m shocked to realize it’s coming from me. It must be the start of a nervous breakdown. Everyone scatters, only to glare with disapproval from a distance as they hurry past. In childhood, this was a kind of home for six years, sometimes a welcome refuge from other forms of grimness. Now they too are cutting me adrift. I want to cry. I want to collapse in a heap, make them come forward with words and deeds of comfort. But no tears come, no friendly arms.
I’ll have to brave it out, there’s no other choice. I go to my room, find a good new suit I don’t remember acquiring. It’s made of a fine tweed, a dark ginger, plain with no pattern in the weave. I put it on. Now I can pull myself together, go back to these people, show them I can walk tall and aloof. Back in the corridor, I see it doesn’t work. I see sniggers, derisive looks. I look down at myself: the suit trousers are of the same cloth but a clashing colour. Dark grey doesn’t go with ginger. I change back into the most casual clothes I can find
Back in the corridor, the classes have broken up. A bustling throng goes to and fro. Someone says “Aren’t you going to help with the Project? We’re all on that now.” I know nothing of this. “You know—the Labour Project.” I follow the throng into the Hall and see them painting huge murals, or maybe posters, which pretty much cover the walls. I quite like the bold brush-strokes, the contrasts of colour, the bigness of it all. I can’t decide whether the wildness of these daubs shows passion or merely ineptitude. There are slogans: a pervasive theme: plight of the workers, iniquity of their bosses, general outrage and activism. Boys and masters are united in this outlet for their energies.
Now I see what I want to do. Now I have a clear role. I want to tell them that this is out of balance. “Bosses” and “workers” are just people. Children shouldn’t be taught to take sides. They should learn to see through their own eyes, and appreciate all points of view. This is why I’m here: not to be trapped, but to stand as a beacon of enlightenment.
Except that I wake up suddenly before I have the chance to set them straight. I strongly desire to go back to the dream, and tell them.
Awakened properly I ask myself whether the headmaster and his wife, as I knew them in real life between 6½ & 12 years of age, could have embraced left-wing values. I remember a lesson which spoke of communism in a theoretical sort of way, without mentioning the USSR. I also remember one of the older boys giving a lecture about the salt mines in Siberia, and prisoners being sent there. There was nothing to connect these two things. When I was asked to give a lecture, I chose Greek Architecture, based on the limited information offered in the Children’s Encyclopaedia, edited by Arthur Mee.
Ours was an ordinary “prep school”, designed to culminate in the Common Entrance exam. Passing this was the necessary ticket for entry to a “public school”:
Public schools emerged from charity schools established to educate poor scholars, the term “public” being used to indicate that access to them was not restricted on the basis of religion, occupation, or home location, and that they were subject to public management or control, in contrast to private schools which were run for the personal profit of the proprietors. . . . Public schools have had a strong association with the ruling classes. Historically they educated the sons of the English upper and upper-middle classes. The sons of officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated in England while their parents were on overseas postings. In 2010, over half of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at public schools; by contrast, most prime ministers since 1964 were educated at state schools.†
There is one thing I do remember, from rare visits to the headmaster’s study: copies of a magazine called Encounter‡ lying on his desk. Now I’m curious as to whether it was indicative of any political attitude he might have had. I learn that it received secret funding from the CIA, as part of a bulwark of intellectual resistance to the lure of Soviet Communism.
Published in the United Kingdom, it was a largely Anglo-American intellectual and cultural journal, originally associated with the anti-Stalinist left. ‡
I was recently reminded of this magazine while reading a biography of Cyril Connolly§ —which I’ve now abandoned as a self-indulgent waste of time. Connolly was flawed as a person and writer too; something less than a laudable character. I was tempted to chase up back numbers of the mag, relive the Fifties that I never knew properly from being too young at the time. I absorbed plenty though, especially from those who’d lived through the Great War, 1914-18, and survived. Like Monty Brummell-Hicks himself. He’d been a telegraphist, tapping out Morse code. He lost an eye, gained a permanent tremor.
I discover that Encounter can be downloaded free, in facsimile.¶ Praise be! But that would be a time-wasting self-indulgence. I may have worthier things to do. Dreams are another matter, out of my conscious control.
* Merrion House School, Sedlescombe
§ Cyril Connolly: a life, by Jeremy Lewis