- J.T. Christie: A Great Teacher by Donald Lindsay, Roger Young and Hugh Lloyd-Jones
Plume, 211 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 947656 00 6
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.
Politics, radical politics, at Westminster had two strands. There was Socialism and there was Pacifism. In the years to come I became embarrassed by the inconsistency between the two and our youthful failure to perceive this, but now I think this was a harsh judgment. In point of fact, we thought quite a lot about the relations between the two principles. We tried to avoid conflicts, and to do so we established priorities. There were also in the school boys who were against these principles. The son of a rich Italian Harley Street doctor extolled Mussolini. Leftism and pacifism swelled an organisation called the United Front of Progressive Forces, known all over the school as Uffpuff.
There were, I am sure, leftists who were not fellow-travellers, but I wasn’t one of them. When I was just 15 I applied to join the Communist Party. I waited, not very anxiously, but I never had a reply. In retrospect, it was a stroke of luck for me, but the truth is that the luck shames me a little. None of us, I must explain, thought the Soviet Union a great place any more than present-day rightists who are fellow-travellers of the United States necessarily think that country a great place. We had read, for instance, Gide’s book. But what we did think was that Communism was an indispensable ally in the fight against Fascism. It gave the fight authenticity. Without Communism on our side Fascism would either be left intact or be replaced by something insufficiently distinguishable from Fascism. A residue of this way of thinking in my own case was that when war did break out in 1939 I distrusted it, and I did not think of myself as prepared to join up until the German invasion forced Russia into the war. Then it gradually gained authenticity for me.
Meanwhile there was the Spanish Civil War, which seemed to us like the last war that would be worth winning. And for this conviction pacifism had a considerable responsibility. Religious pacifism apart – and religious pacifism was a considerable slice of the whole – pacifism was not an unconditional doctrine. Fundamentally it was the belief that, exceptional circumstances apart, all that wars could achieve was vast fortunes for armament kings. The claim of the Spanish Civil War was that it represented such exceptional circumstances. Those of my contemporaries who on Armistice Day walked down Victoria Street carrying sandwich-boards for the Peace Pledge Union, and then went to Trafalgar Square to demonstrate for Arms for Spain, may have misjudged the nature of a particular historical occasion. But they were not applying double standards. What was second nature for most of us to believe was that, if organised slaughter is ever justified, it is likelier to be so in civil war, or what is today, for some reason, called ‘terrorism’, than in the exchanges of mass destruction that mark wars between nation states. This seems to me obvious.
I had been touched by pacifism in my first year at school. Escaping from the untrammelled violence of the common room that first-year scholars shared – which was known as Lumber Room – I would go for walks down Victoria Street to the edge of bounds – which was the Army and Navy Stores – and there I would go into the book department, where I stumbled across a pile of canary yellow pamphlets by Aldous Huxley. One was called the ‘Encyclopedia of Pacifism’. Under the influence of these pamphlets I decided to leave the OTC. The master in charge of my section – who was famous for his evening prowls through the boys’ bathrooms, floating his hand round the bath and asking if the water was warm – told me that I was being unfair to the OTC. It, too, was a pacifist organisation: as witness the dummy rifles we carried on field exercises. ‘How about the bayonets?’ I asked, because they were real enough. He dropped his eyes, I remember, and said that he would let me have an answer. He never did. It was the silliest argument I ever won. It set me on the course of dissent.
What I think surprised many older people at the time, and what seems to surprise many younger people today, is how deaf we were to the traditional siren voices of common sense and patriotism. This was no peripheral aspect of our thinking – it was a cardinal point with us, for what we felt was that those who spoke with these voices were the betrayers of the age. Under their rhetoric lay a self-serving, self-perpetuating humbug. Just after the collapse of the Spanish Republic, at the close of the Civil War, Baldwin was invited down to the Political and Literary Society – Pol and Lit Soc – a place where we schoolboys had listened to Russell and Gandhi and Auden and the electrifying Gerald Heard. Baldwin, who looked like a rich undertaker, confided in us that he had felt obliged to resign as Prime Minister when he discovered that he could no longer concentrate on any topic for more than five minutes on end. What he told us was alarming enough, but what was even more awesome was the way he felt able to tell us this kind of thing – he spoke as if within a charmed circle where such confidences would be kept. When I see where it has led some of my friends, I am grateful to the Thirties for ridding me for ever of patriotism.
But what does surprise me today is the confidence, the coolness, with which at the age of 16, 15, maybe 14, we held at arm’s length so much of the thinking of the adult world. In this regard we were very unlike the generation of the Sixties, to whom confrontation was like a necessary blood transfusion. Perhaps it was this coolness that enabled some of my generation to embark on the heroic course of being a conspirator, an underground agent. Though I must add, on this combustible subject, that to me it would have seemed only minimally less discreditable to have entered the service of a foreign nation state than to have worked for the preservation of the British Empire.
How did we manage this confidence? It had, I believe, in our case something to do with the nature of where we were, of the school in which we found ourselves, and in particular with the very distorted representation of the adult world that it offered to us. The nicknames I had learned by rote from the ominous notebook were not the names of grown men. Chuff, Preedy, Coot, Cissy, Puppy, Poon, Tubby, Beaker – it was a roll-call of overgrown schoolboys. And that is what they were. They were entrapped in the same feuds, jealousies, alliances, strategems as we were, though in their case these were blown up to monstrous, florid proportions. ‘There goes Claridge,’ said John Bowle, the most sophisticated master in the school, as, in the middle of a lesson, he caught sight of the senior French master drifting across Little Dean’s Yard in his morning suit: ‘Spit whenever you see him, boys. Like this.’ And to encourage us he opened the mullioned window and spat out. Stories circulated about how the masters had been acquired. One had been so anxious to return to the school he had left that he could scarcely bring himself to get the degree that stood between being a schoolboy and being a schoolmaster. Another, it was alleged, had been snapped up half-price on being sent down from Oxford after a distinguished foreign guest at his college, who had the night before stumbled into the unfortunate man’s bedroom mistaking it for his own, announced to the High Table that, as far as he could make out, the most significant difference between his country and England was that in his country men went to bed with women, in England men went to bed with men.
One consequence of this state of unreform was that there was some disastrous teaching, but another consequence was that masters, or some masters, were ready to share with us as equals their own exaggerated enthusiasms, and these included the enthusiasms of the epoch. They offered us encouragement and the fruits of their own chaotic reading. Two great figures, cornucopias of ideas, were John Bowle, head of the History side – which collected the self-appointed intelligentsia of the school – and Andrew Wordsworth, a poet and friend of poets. Bowle introduced us to Burckhardt and Tocqueville and his own gurus, Gerald Heard and Arnold Toynbee. Andrew wore thick blue tweeds and velvet or woollen ties with enormous knots. He took me when I was fourteen or fifteen to Group Theatre productions and then to dinner at small, steamy Soho restaurants of a kind that no longer exists. We talked avidly, and it was a totally new experience after having been so often the silent child in large groups at expensive restaurants. Andrew was very emotional, and he threw books at boys whose loutish views enraged him – though never very hard. Once he was knocked out when young Ribbentrop hurled back a Latin grammar and hit him on the forehead.
When I arrived at Westminster, the headmaster was the Reverend Harold Costley-White. He was a large, extremely handsome man, silver-haired, highly mellifluous, somewhere between a bishop and a general risen from the cavalry, and altogether lacking in any sense of the absurd. He announced the death of King George V as ‘nothing short of a catastrophe’. Some years later he wrote a letter to the Times, addressed from the deanery of Gloucester Cathedral, pointing out the more than local importance of certain recently discovered Medieval frescoes in the cloisters, which, he said, ‘depicted God the Father slightly over life-size’. As far as the school was concerned, he surveyed the passing scene with benign tolerance. He was King Log.
I saw very little of Costley-White, and just after I got to the school he took to his bed with an embolism. John Bowle said casually that it would take wild horses to get Costley-White to leave, and then, captivated by the idea, set ‘Wild horses dragging Costley-White down School’ as the prize topic for a History-side art competition. My friends, my saviours, the aesthetes, threw me their entries, and there landed on the pile of books I was carrying pastiches of de Chirico, echoes of Delacroix, shades of Bérard. It was tempting fate, and a few weeks later Costley-White’s replacement was announced. It was J.T. Christie, headmaster of Repton, aged 37. King Stork had succeeded King Log.
The newcomer even looked the part. He was very tall, very thin, with a tiny head, pale hair kept very short, slightly protuberant pale blue eyes and thin lips. He always wore a two-buttoned, dark suit, which he kept tightly fastened. His trousers stopped at his ankles, and his shoes were heavy and unpolished. But the two most distinctive things about him were the twang in his voice and his way of standing. Donald Lindsay has caught the pose photographically: ‘When addressing the school he appeared to stand on one leg, like a stork, with head on one side, a sideways twist of the lips – especially when some rejoinder slipped out – and a trick of one hand grasping the other arm behind his back.’
We all got to know this pose very well. It was the pose of reproof. Reproof came readily to Christie – readily, but not easily. The pose helped. By stripping first himself, then the occasion, of all dignity, it allowed him, now filled with self-abasement, to lash out at us. Self-ridicule, then ridicule of others. Sir Roger Young, no mean admirer of Christie and largely responsible for the reverent tone of this book, allows himself to recall the most famous and most engaging example of this pattern of behaviour – Christie in mid-sermon leaning down over the pulpit and saying to some offender below: ‘Er, don’t jingle your money in your pocket, boy.’ A more daunting occasion was during the first few months of Christie’s rule when, at the end of Latin Prayers in the great Medieval hall called School, he stepped forward, adopted the posture of reproof, harangued us on some scandal which had come to light, and then, staring icily at the assembled school, said: ‘And now I’m not going to say Ire licet.’ A pause, in which he replaced his college cap. ‘Just get out.’
The three contributors to this volume rightly recall Christie’s spectacular gifts as a teacher. I read Erasmus’s Letters with him, and, most memorably, Catullus. He read the Attis poem, giving the Latin words a strange nasal melancholy, and tried to persuade us that it was only with Christianity that loss of self could escape morbidity. He read with us some of the Lesbia poems, not all. He compared Catullus to Burns, and again he tried to convince us of the torments of unsanctified love. When he spoke of such topics he wriggled in his chair. We used to see him wriggle in much the same way in his pew when he came in early to the school service for private prayer. In both cases, he wrestled with some part of himself he did not like, and I cannot help feeling that he, and we, and the school as a whole, would have been happier if he had sometimes emerged the loser.
Christie taught in a manner that differed greatly from that of the masters we all admired. He was, for instance, a much closer reader of the text, and we could have learned a great deal from him like this if we had been willing. We weren’t. Limbering up for the terrible Oxford scholarship paper, we either let poetry roll over us, or culled it for quotations. But what most set Christie apart as a teacher was something which, it was soon apparent, would have important consequences for the school. Christie loved literature – that was certain. I think it is also true that, as Professor Hugh Lloyd-Jones says, he wanted his pupils to share his love. But he made it clear that literature was something that we had to deserve. The age of cornucopia was over.
Put simply, desert equalled Christianity. For Christie, the fruits of civilisation were too precious, too delicate, to be handled by the unregenerate. They would putrefy in their grasp. That being so, it followed, as night follows day, what had to be done. The school that had been entrusted to Christie’s care – and Sir Roger lends his authority to the view, to which Christie himself subscribed, that the Almighty had had a hand in the appointment – must be converted. In so far as it was beyond conversion, it must be purged.
I am not suggesting that Christie was happy with such an attitude. Happiness was not, after all, what he sought. And he made exceptions. The present Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford was a prodigy of a scholar at school, already vowing to master the finest shades of meaning of every Greek preposition. To his credit, Christie found such dedication irresistible, and Hugh was the one of our group to enjoy Christie’s familiarity.
Christie set about the task which lay ahead of him in a number of ways. He attended society meetings – not as a participant, but as a censor. He slipped in at the back of classes, and sat there with his gown wrapped round him. His constant tone of mild sarcasm eroded the self-confidence of all those who were not in his favour. He nudged subversive masters out of the school. He found many occasions to mount the pulpit, standing there beatifically for a few seconds until, a smirk crinkling his face, he began. All these measures are hinted at in the present study. But there is one omission, which the intent of the book makes understandable, but which needs to be made good if a whole picture of the man is to emerge. Christie rejoiced in beating boys.
He beat boys for a number of offences. He beat them for cheating, and he beat them for sex. Two boys, whom we all knew he wanted to beat for other reasons, he beat for what was regarded in the school as an act of heroic frivolity – stealing the batteries out of his wireless set. Doe-eyed boys came back from the ordeal and reported Christie as saying: ‘Those that live by the flesh shall die by the flesh, bend over, boy.’ Some selected offenders he invited to pray with him before he beat them. One, to my knowledge, refused.
As I recall it, I paid no particular attention to the invitation when I received it to go and see the headmaster. It was in early 1940, and the meeting began so oddly that for a while I could not see where it was leading. Christie’s tone was affable. ‘Some boys,’ he began, ‘outgrow school. Now take M.’ At this period Westminster was evacuated to the South Coast, and we shared buildings with a hilltop school. M was captain of the hilltop school. He was very tall, very broad, with a shock of curly bronzed hair and a permanent dark stubble. He leaned backwards as he walked. He carried a long cane under his arm, and he exuded a savage caddishness. I was amazed that Christie should have summoned me to discuss M. ‘Now M,’ Christie went on, ‘is physically too mature for school. He should move on. You are intellectually too mature. You’ve no place here.’ I told him that I had plans for going to Oxford, which required that I stayed at school. He gave me a week or so to think it over.
Our next meeting was less agreeable. I reiterated my position. He understood it fully, he said, and then, placing his face about a foot from mine, he chose his words carefully: ‘Unfortunately for you, I happen to have the whip hand.’ By now he was determined to expel me, and all he had to do was to find one good reason. Over the next few weeks we met on a number of occasions. Each time he cited new reasons. There was an anti-war paper I had helped edit. I had, I pointed out, submitted each number for censorship, and they had been passed. He wrote to my parents, and he repeated it to me, that I had been reading the bawdier Restoration comedies. I pointed out that they had been form reading, set us by John Bowle. At one meeting he unearthed some watercolours I had entered for the art competition. A fact he fortunately overlooked was that I had done them as illustrations to Baudelaire’s lesbian poems, and it must have been some strange self-destructive demon within him that led him to concentrate all his disapproval, all his moral wrath, on one single element: which was that, on each naked figure, within the circle that signified the breast – and so far all was all right – there was, and he asked me to confirm it, an ink dot that unambiguously depicted the nipple. Anatomically correct, in certain sophisticated milieux unobjectionable, but in a school such explicitness could only encourage salacious thoughts. I must recognise that there were boys younger, weaker than myself, and I must show them charity. I felt ill during these meetings, but I gradually became confident that I could not be expelled from a school where so recently liberty had reigned because of the difference between a breast with and a breast without a nipple.
I had allies, among them my housemaster, a shy devout man whose life I had not made easy. He advised me to be placatory – which I wasn’t – but I believe that ultimately he was more scared than I was by what harm could be done when a crusade of righteousness was unleashed upon a school. Schoolmasters of those days had – they had to have if they were to survive – some intuitive perception of the fine-spun threads of sadism and masochism that made up the tapestries of each other’s characters.
While all this was going on, the Germans had bombed Rotterdam. They had driven through the Low Countries and France, and Dunkirk was imminent. I was saved by another evacuation, and by the scattered life the school led over the next year on the borders of Worcestershire and Herefordshire.
By now I was secretary of Pol and Lit Soc. Russell, Gandhi, Auden and Gerald Heard were not around to be invited. I asked the pacifist Bishop of Birmingham to speak, and then – I cannot remember the thinking that led up to this – I asked Christie to talk on a writer I knew he deeply admired, Virginia Woolf. He arrived on his bicycle, and, as I recall the occasion, he read extensively from her writings. The restlessness with which he read made it clear why he admired her. He said at the time, and in a letter in the present volume he makes the same point, that he admired her for her sense of fun. He couldn’t have – no one could. I believe that what he admired her for was the sharpness, the vividness of perception exacerbated beyond anything she could tolerate in herself by a gnawing irritability that never slept.
After I left school I only saw Christie once more. It was in Oxford, just after the war. I was walking along the Broad when I heard just behind me a familiar voice saying, ‘Lucie, there’s Woll’eim, walk a little faster please,’ and two long-legged creatures, husband and wife, shot past me and continued ahead, he with one arm grasping the other behind his back, she stumbling to keep up.