- The Old School: A Study by Simon Raven
Hamish Hamilton, 139 pp, £12.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 241 11929 4
- The Best Years of their Lives: The National Service Experience 1945-63 by Trevor Royle
Joseph, 288 pp, £12.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2459 6
- Murder without Conviction: Inside the World of the Krays by John Dickson
Sidgwick, 164 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 283 99407 X
- Inside ‘Private Eye’ by Peter McKay
Fourth Estate, 192 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 947795 80 4
- Malice in Wonderland: Robert Maxwell v. ‘Private Eye’ by Robert Maxwell, John Jackson, Peter Donnelly and Joe Haines
Macdonald, 191 pp, £10.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 356 14616 2
These tales of mob and gang will be appreciated by man and boy, but especially by those of us who have survived fifty-odd years of life in Britain. Our day-school years in the Thirties were much influenced by the public school system, expressed in schoolmasters’ aspirations and schoolboys’ comics. Simon Raven’s notorious devotion to that system began when he was only a seven-year-old comic reader, as he admits in The Old School, a loving but mordant survey of the dormitory schools: he went on avidly to Charterhouse and he fancies other men will envy or scorn that experience, as he himself scorns or envies men from rival dormitories. Such is the gang spirit. Then, in our teens or twenties, we entered the mob, post-war conscripts in the years of National Service: here the public schoolboys came into their own, hogging the Queen’s Commission and acquiring conscript valets. Trevor Royle, a serious young Scot, describes ‘the National Service Experience, 1945-63’ in his worthy book, The Best Years of Their Lives: he feels sorry that he was too young to meet this challenge himself.
By the Sixties all we conscripts had emerged from the mob, ready to face private enterprise, the gang life of Civvy Street, when the Kray Twins ruled London – or so the timorous newspapers claimed. John Dickson, a former member of the Krays’ firm, has somehow produced a well-written book, Murder without Conviction. ‘We looked like any normal businessmen in our pin-striped suits,’ he says, describing the firm’s negotiations with the Mafia. The Krays were a craze of the Sixties, adulated in the American style, like Malcolm X or Al Capone, Huey Long or Joe Bananas. They were like rock stars, they were in with the press, said to be in with the law: even today, while they lie in jail, the Daily Telegraph prints interviews with them, as if they were as respectable as the Shah of Iran. Dickson mentions David Bailey, who published a handsome photograph of the Twins, with an eloquent caption by Francis Wyndham, comparing them with Humphrey Bogart. It was the little public-school gang of Private Eye that broke through the hype: larger journals seemed awed by the potent Krays, the editors fearful of having their knees nailed to the furniture. The fallen state of Private Eye is illustrated by Peter McKay’s foolish and ill-written book, Inside Private Eye, but scornful young readers should remember that this downmarket old fogey was once a young fogey. It stood up to the Krays, a plucky little public-school rag-mag.
This brings us back to The Old School and the schooldays of Simon Raven. When he was not studying his Billy Bunter comics, young Raven was reading The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s, a more grown-up story, concerned with the maintenance of esprit de corps in a gang-torn community. The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s was against the Sixth Form, the seniors were against the juniors, themselves divided into two tribes, the Tadpoles and the Guinea-Pigs, and the whole school was ganged up against itself: the vague, well-meaning headmaster noticed that this unpleasantness was fomented by the school’s rag magazine and he summoned the sly little editor, a sour, malicious boy, unfit for cricket. The headmaster told him: ‘As long as you can keep on the round of humour and pure fun, nothing can please us more than to see you improving your time in a manner like this. But you must be very careful to avoid what will give pain or offence to any section of your schoolfellows. I want all you boys instead of separating off from one another and making division between class and class, to unite in common cause for the good of St Dominic’s.’ The headmaster of Shrewsbury should have given such sound pastoral advice to the founders of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams and his gang of merry chums: these old boys have shamed their old school, making it a byword. Shrewsbury, as Simon Raven notes, is now notorious for shrewishness.