Jesus Christie

Richard Wollheim

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.

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