Caruthers & Co

Simon Raven writes about an underneglected masterpiece

Loder, the Fifth Form Cad, is being blackmailed by Hogg, the new School Butler: unless Loder gives Hogg £10, Hogg will go to the Head and report Loder for smoking and drinking in the Saloon Bar of the Black Ape; whereupon Loder will be sacked.

‘I don’t care so much for myself,’ sobs Loder to Tom Merry, the Hero of the Shell: ‘It’s my parents; the disgrace will kill them.’

‘Can you see no escape, Loder?’ asked Tom, as pity mingled with the contempt in his clear blue eyes.

‘Well, there might be a way out, Merry ... and I think you could help me ... ’

It now appears that Red Marquis is a dead cert for the three-thirty at Goodwood, and will start at 2 to 1 or better. So if Tom lends Loder the Five Pounds he has in his keeping as Treasurer of the Colts’ Cricket XI, Loder can back Red Marquis, win the £10 needed to shut Hogg up, and pay back the £5 stake to Tom with nobody any the wiser.

Tom yields to Loder’s pathetic plea. Red Marquis comes tenth. Loder and Hogg chuckle together over the success of their trick. They now split Tom’s Fiver ... at the same time as ‘Fatty’ Wayne of the Third splits the best pair of Colts’ batting gloves during pracker at the nets. Another pair is urgently needed. Tom is instructed by the Captain of the School to buy one before the big match against Greyfriars, and also to bring the rest of the funds to him for the termly audit.

‘You look done in, young ’un,’ comments Kildare, flexing his ashplant. ‘Anything the matter?’

‘Oh, what rot, Kildare. Nothing’s the matter.’

‘Tomorrow evening in my study, then. Bring the fund, and the new pair of gloves for my inspection.’

‘How could I have been such a chump as to listen to that rotter, Loder,’ muses Tom, as he wanders round the local town looking in vain for a pair of batting gloves to be had ‘on tick’. And even should he find one, how will he account for the rest of the fund? But ... woweee. Here is a Fair on the Common, complete with a Wrestling Booth. A notice says that Five Pounds will be awarded to anyone who can stand up to the Macclesfield Mamba for five minutes. Tom steps into the ring, his jaw set. Young he may be, but he is also lithe and fit, his limbs straight and his heart British ...

By clever footwork he evades the lethal clutch of the Mamba for the first four and a half minutes, but at last he is caught when the Mamba pretends to stumble and Tom offers him his hand in aid. Although Tom summons all his strength to fight against the monster’s hideous embrace, the Mamba’s fetid breath is more than any clean and upright fellow can endure. Tom is engulfed by waves of darkness.

‘Time,’ calls a jolly old Farmer with his eyes on his gun-metal Hunter. He compels the slimy Italian owner of the Booth, who has already let the match last for five and a half minutes, to hand over Tom’s prize.

‘Well done, young ’un,’ says Kildare a few hours later (little knowing how closely disaster has been averted): ‘everything in perfect order, as usual, and a jolly decent pair of new gloves.’

Tom blushes with happiness and holds his head high during the Evening Rag in the Shell Corridor.

‘Yaaarrrooouuugh,’ he cries as he wallops ‘Fatty’ Wayne in the stomach. ‘I say, you chaps. Let’s flush out that swine Loder, the rotter of the Fifth, and throw him into School Ducker to clean him up a bit.’

No: not The Loom of Youth.[*] A précis of a particularly readable number of the Gem, circa the summer of 1936. But the point is that for sheer absurdity of idiom, utterance and action it might very well be The Loom of Youth, were it not for two things: first, the plot is far more ingenious and engaging than anything in Alec Waugh’s novel, and the narrative far swifter and sharper; and secondly, the only vices featured in the Gem are smoking, drinking and gambling, whereas The Loom of Youth refers, overtly, to homo-erotic dalliance.

As to the plot and the narrative of the tale in the Gem both owe much to Dean Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little, in which Eric embezzles the cricket fund to subsidise his boozing, breaks the best bat while hitting a winning sixer, and then has to confess that there is no money to replace it. But if the Gem has plagiarised, it has also elaborated and extended; and in any case the sheer vigour of the thing must be its best excuse. The Loom of Youth, on the other hand, has no reckonable plot at all. It records the school career of a tiresome if talented boy called Gordon Caruthers, sound in wind and solid in limb, eager of attention and sparing of effort, noisy and coarse in success, sullen and mean in defeat, who at length becomes, through sheer luck (the unexpected and premature departure of a better man to fight in the Great War), Captain of his House. The story of Caruthers’s progress from new bug to eminence plods, dithers and wheezes. It is without any memorable incident. The descriptions of games, despite their evident importance both to Waugh and to Caruthers, are perfunctory where not hysterical. All discussions of school work or intellectual affairs are pretentious where not merely commonplace. It is, in a word, a ghastly drag from start to finish. Why, then, was it a famous best-seller which has since been many times reissued?

This is where we must go back to the second difference on which I have remarked between The Loom of Youth and the Gem. The Gem is about boys who are angels in this, at least – that they have no private parts. The Loom of Youth, on the other hand, does actually and positively mention the boys’ homosexual relations with one another. True, the references are brief and unexciting. ‘Several years ago,’ Waugh tells us in his Preface, ‘a friend was reading the book in my company. “When do I reach the scene?” he asked. I looked over his shoulder. “You’ve passed it, ten pages back,” I told him.’ Nevertheless, since Waugh was among the first in this field, his book created an odour of delicious scandal which has clung to it, and spuriously promoted it, ever since. Other factors which helped, on its first appearance in 1917, were the shortage of fiction in wartime and the fact that its author was a serving subaltern. Its survival, however, which cannot conceivably be the result of merit, is due solely to its supposed and ‘outrageous’ sexuality.

Since this sexuality is negligible in most modern eyes and non-existent in my own, it is impossible to understand why this book is still here when many others in the genre, far more compelling or beguiling on sexual or other topics, have totally vanished. In E.F. Benson’s David Blaise, ‘young, pink flesh’ appears under wet, black knickerbockers in an open squash court: yet where is David now? The Hill, by H.A. Vachell, a tale of true friendship, drew hot tears, from me at least: it is still read, but very seldom, and has certainly not been reissued for many years. Gunby Hadath’s The Big Five was a marvellous school mystery; Hugh Walpole’s Jeremy at Crale was a superb account of mental and physical endeavour; both are sunk without trace. Even the poor, defunct old Gem was, as we have seen, streets ahead of The Loom of Youth when it came to a good yarn. And yet The Loom of Youth, by far the silliest and the dullest of them all, is still with us while all the rest are gone. Its survival can only be attributed, like its rebarbative hero’s elevation to the Captaincy of his House, to the sheer and tasteless perversity of lady luck.

[*] Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth has been reissued by Methuen (288 pp., £3.95, 12 April, 0 413 54980 1).