There are, I am sure, in the lives of all of us except perhaps the most low-spirited, some four or five people whom we cannot forgive. By this I do not mean anything necessarily moral. We don’t have to think that what they did was wrong, or even that they could have stopped themselves doing it. It is enough that they stick in the gullet. J.T. Christie: A Great Teacher is modelled on those Late Victorian or Edwardian volumes, bound in dark olive or chocolate board, hagiographical in tone, which, while bringing together the scattered papers of some resolutely private figure, admit that his real distinction of mind and character has eluded them, and its subject is one of the four or five people who stick in my gullet.
John Traill Christie was my headmaster for just over four years. I never knew him well, though I have had to think about him a lot. For a brief period I must have occupied his thoughts because he spent about a term and a half, which coincided with some of Britain’s darkest hours, trying to expel me. He failed, but he did succeed in destroying what we – a term I shall have to use a lot, meaning a group of somewhat like-minded boys – thought of as the better part of an institution about which we had deeply mixed feelings. These are the ashes of old controversy, and my excuse for raking them over is that doing so may throw light on a tiny fragment of the past which seems to grow in interest even as it begins to slip out of historical focus: that is, what it was like to grow up in the Thirties – in my case, in the late Thirties.
I arrived at Westminster School, as a King’s Scholar, in September 1936. The King’s Scholars lived in a house of their own called College, and I looked forward to the experience. For the reality I turned out to be totally unprepared. I was a prig. I was physically weak. I didn’t believe in defending myself, and – what explained all three things – I had not previously been away to boarding-school. Amongst my year my only companion in these disadvantages was Donald Swann, the musician. A science teacher, who had the schoolmaster’s eye for the frailties of those whom he was supposed to teach, called us ‘the Swollheim’. The name allowed massive economies in sarcasm.
Two attempts to prepare me for my new life were misjudged. One morning there arrived by post a small handwritten notebook with marbled covers. It was marked ‘Private’ or ‘Secret’, and it contained lists of house colours, of school slang (some of it obsolete), of the forms in the school and of masters’ nicknames. A brief note advised us to learn the book by heart, for we would be examined on its contents on arrival and the slightest mistake would earn us a beating. Around the same time, one Sunday morning, after going riding, I was dropped off at the house of our family doctor, to whom I was indebted for his having introduced me to the Waverley novels three years before. I sat opposite him across a large mahogany desk with silver ornaments, and even now I can remember vividly the view over the shoulder of his dark, well-cut suit, through the conservatory, onto the large clump of purple rhododendrons on the lawn. I could sense the oncoming humiliation even before I heard him asking if I knew what rabbits did. I tried to say nothing. Later that very evening, after a telephone conversation took place, I overheard that Dr Barclay thought my ignorance too profound to disturb: ‘He knows absolutely nothing.’
Before I went to Westminster I lived entirely in books and the past. I looked forward to reading Virgil and Pope and finding someone to talk to about Medieval coins, which I collected avidly. That is what I meant by saying that I was a prig. The interests of the boys I found myself among seemed confined to games, bullying and sex. I was, quite simply, very frightened, but the worst was to come when in my terrorised mind these three coalesced into a single brutalised activity. A fevered perception confirmed my fears. College dormitory where the 40 scholars slept was the old monastic granary, which up to a certain height was divided into wooden cubicles. One wintry evening, with the fog drifting in through the high windows, I was walking down the central corridor when I saw through the fluttering curtains two boys on a bed. They were in football shorts, their legs and hair caked in mud. One wobbled on top of the other, and they were breathing imprecations into each other’s ear.
As soon as I could arrange it, I took refuge in the company of a small group of somewhat older boys, whose manners and bearing told me they were incapable of such coarseness. Their elegance, their stories of dances and tea-parties, their irreverence, their complicated relations with mothers or sisters, their drawled jokes, entranced me. I felt safe. Unlike the boys I had fled, these boys were, of course, the lifelong homosexuals of their generation. As well as being my saviours, they were also my heroes, and they remained so until their pitifully early deaths. In a world which did not really have much time for them, they made lives for themselves. Thirty-five years later, an external examiner at the University of Hong Kong, I took the hydrofoil to Macao in order to see the temples and the villas and the colonial cafés which Tony Watson-Gandy must have seen when he lived there, just after the war, with a Chinese boyfriend and pipes of opium, studying Mandarin. A sudden rush of identification led me, for the length of an afternoon and for the only time in my life, to think boys as attractive as girls.
But this is autobiography, not history, and history impinged on my schooldays only when at the end of the first year I discovered politics. About this time I had had my head cracked open in a scuffle, and this brought me exemption from bullying and a new freedom to move around the school. But there was also a general softening of manners. Beating, for instance, was abolished in College. And what I do not know is how long before I discovered politics, politics was actually there to be discovered. My first encounter was a series of debates at the back of the football bus in which Peter Ustinov took on Ribbentrop’s son on the justice of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. A few months later, these ideas, and other ideas – Surrealism, colloquial poetry, and the new architecture – were everywhere. There was a new dawn, but a dawn forced on by the night that we were starting to fear.
Vol. 7 No. 18 · 17 October 1985
SIR: Neither of us was close to J.T. Christie, so we do not write for personal reasons to protest at the review by Richard Wollheim of J.T. Christie: A Great Teacher. But one does expect the London Review of Books to review books. The three pages of artless malice with which your issue of 3 October opens say hardly a word about the volume which it purports to notice. The fact that, nearly fifty years later, Richard Wollheim has not grown out of hating his old headmaster is a matter for his medical advisers. But it is scarcely sufficiently interesting to justify the space you afford him. Those of us who have not read the book can have no idea, having studied Mr Wollheim’s splurge of poison, what the volume contains. It is said to be ‘A Selection of his Own Writings’, but nowhere are these writings quoted or discussed.
That Christie was a great teacher, generations of schoolboys and undergraduates would testify. In later years there were many who enjoyed his charm as a host or his spry and bookish conversation. On the rare occasions when Wollheim’s exercise in self-contemplation deviates into a literary judgment, he shows himself to be crass. We are apparently meant to sneer at Christie for saying that he admired Virginia Woolf’s sense of fun. ‘No one could,’ splutters Wollheim. Has he never read Flush or Orlando? His claim to know what Christie really admired in Virginia Woolf is as impertinent as his implied knowledge of what passed through Christie’s mind when he ‘came in early for the school service for private prayer’.
In order to get his revenge on that learned and delightful man, Wollheim waited until Christie was long dead, and only had family left to feel wounded. The chief interest of Christie, if your periodical is to be believed, was that he did not much like Wollheim. If Wollheim the boy was anything like the tortured creature who penned that ill-constructed article, the explanation is not hard to seek.
A.N. Wilson, Katherine Duncan-Jones
Vol. 7 No. 20 · 21 November 1985
SIR: The letter from Katherine Duncan-Jones and A.N. Wilson (Letters, 17 October) is a reminder that mine is not the only conceivable view to hold of J.T. Christie. I was aware of this fact, and it was so as to make this point – and others – that I was at pains to present my view autobiographically. That I did so seems to have displeased your correspondents. In three small matters their letter stands in need of correction. 1. Of course anyone could admire Virginia Woolf’s sense of fun. What I do not believe is that anyone could admire her for – that is, primarily for – her sense of fun. That is the point at issue, and how – I must ask now – do your correspondents know that I splutter when I make it? 2. The evidence for thinking that Christie struggled with himself when he prayed comes from the book under review: it is supplied by Sir Roger Young’s memoir and by Christie’s religious addresses. 3. I have been ready at any moment in the last forty years to set down my opinion of J.T. Christie. It was the LRB that bided its time. I hope your correspondents are not suggesting that it is impermissible to write unfavourably of anyone unless he is alive and his family dead.
‘Biding its time’ is Professor Wollheim’s little joke. What we did was to arrange without expedition for a book to be reviewed.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: What a surprising essay about himself from such a distinguished philosopher as Richard Wollheim, masquerading as a review of J.T. Christie: A Selection of his Own Writings (LRB, 3 October). Every schoolboy hates some of his masters but the interests of later life usually obliterate provoking incidents even when a little unforgiving thought persists. The first half of Wollheim’s three-page reminiscence describes his self-education, before John Christie became Headmaster of Westminster, including his first year as a King’s Scholar in that prestigious school; since it belongs to the Royal Abbey, has any school more duty to teach Christianity, against which Wollheim rebelled? The second half is a recital of what Shakespeare called ‘scorns, despising of persons, and poutings fitter for girls and schoolboys’, all directed against Christie and depicting him as a pillar of salt. Wollheim admits that John was a uniquely inspiring teacher, but each merit is damned with faint praise and no allowance is made for a young headmaster’s worries: not only insolent boys, but critical elder masters, an occasional obstructive governor and, worst of all at Westminster, snooping reporters from the evening papers if a school row was noised abroad by day-boys. The deliberately offensive title attributed to Maurice Bowra derives, I believe, from a cartoon of Christie circulated by one of Wollheim’s contemporaries which any headmaster, to keep ‘a happy ship’, was bound to suppress. I knew both John and Maurice for nearly fifty years; they were lifelong friends, utterly different but rejoicing in each other’s wit. Christie certainly had a fierce side. One of his close Oxford friends admitted: ‘I sometimes hate him.’ Yet both Bowra and he would help any pupil who made a fool of himself when they thought reproof followed by encouragement would bring him to sense. Wollheim quotes the book he is ostensibly reviewing only three or four times, each time to Christie’s disadvantage. The concluding anecdote seems deliberately aimed to wound John’s widow, now an old lady still in touch with many of his pupils, who know that his marriage, five years before he came to Westminster, brought him lasting happiness (Wollheim declares, ‘Happiness was not what he sought’), and that she smoothed away his rough edges, of which all his friends had been aware. How pitiable that a successful, serious man should publish in detail the pains of fifty years ago, as if from an analyst’s couch: ‘who would not laugh if such a man there be, who would not weep if W. were he?’
Vol. 7 No. 22 · 19 December 1985
SIR: As begetter and publisher of the book on John Christie, I felt reluctant to enter this correspondence until I saw Professor Wollheim’s letter following his review (Letters, 21 November). John Christie was also my headmaster at Westminster and I knew Professor Wollheim as a pupil there. I doubt whether he will remember me. He borrowed my bicycle pump. He has never returned it, but he is welcome to keep it now. He was certainly regarded in my day as something of a character. His progressive intellectualism and conflicts with authority did not go unnoticed by the school in general. But whatever Professor Wollheim’s personal recollections of John Christie may be, there were others of us who, both at Westminster and later in life, recognised in Christie a man of outstanding calibre as a formative influence on a whole generation and a personality and teacher of charismatic significance. It was for these reasons that we felt that the three brief memoirs of him and a small selection of his writings in many fields should be published and read: so that there might be some permanent record of this modest man’s achievement. The book has sold well and received many appreciative (if non-autobiographical) reviews during the 12 months it took Professor Wollheim to pen his own.
SIR: I have only just read Richard Wollheim’s fascinating piece (LRB, 3 October), in which he uses the pretext of reviewing a book on J.T. Christie to describe his own schooldays at Westminster. His vivid picture of his school contemporaries, who, it seems, were (with a few charming exceptions) a thoroughly nasty, brutal and caddish lot, reminds me irresistibly of the characterisation, in an old Victorian saying, of the four great public schools of England:
Eton, boatmen; Harrow, gentlemen;
Westminster, scoundrels; Winchester, scholars. The validity of traditional stereotypes sometimes persists with unexpected tenacity, so that Wollheim should perhaps recognise himself as a Wykehamist manqué, and see the tribulations which befell him at Westminster as the fatal result of being sent to the wrong school.