The World of School

John Bayley

  • The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and his Friends by Humphrey Carpenter
    Weidenfeld, 523 pp, £17.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 297 79320 9
  • Osbert: A Portrait of Osbert Lancaster by Richard Boston
    Collins, 256 pp, £17.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 00 216324 1
  • Ackerley: A Life of J.R. Ackerley by Peter Parker
    Constable, 465 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 09 469000 6

Dean Farrar, the theologian and Harrow schoolmaster who in 1858 brought out the best-seller Eric, or Little by Little, later produced the almost equally popular St Winifred’s, or The World of School. There are a surprising number of novels, mainly but not all English ones, which could use the same subtitle. The Waves, or The World of School, War and Peace, or The World of School, A Passage to India, or ... ? Brighton Rock? Le Grand Meaulnes? A clear case would be Brideshead Revisited, where Brideshead is obviously the name of the school itself.

Even today, almost everyone has the school experience, at whatever sort of institution; and although it is no longer so obsessional and so long-lasting as it could once be, it may still determine the individual outlook more than most care to own. The sense of belonging or not belonging, important for Bloomsbury or for the Brideshead Generation written about by Humphrey Carpenter, is less significant than the initial and basic instinct to opt out, or the passionate wish to opt in. As a template and exemplar of getting on in the world, school can either be a negative experience or one so positive that it determines all subsequent behaviour. A writer of genius marked by it sees the world through its eyes ever after: Tolstoy, who never went to school, had its experiences not academically but socially. The intensely emulative goal was doing the real right thing – becoming, in the eyes of disciples in the Lower Fourth, the really superior person, not saint, not sage, but outcast, self-abandoned.

Waugh had the same school-world dreams in social form, and they continue to exercise a fascination – crude, perhaps, but potent. His popularity shows, among other things, how those with the instinct to opt out have a keen relish for opting in at second hand. The true devotees of Greyfriars have never left home; no stigma attaches to being a secret fantasy-snob and no one minds being bullied in a book. But Christopher Sykes, who saw much of Waugh in the Army, and who remained a warm friend, had to remark in his biography that ‘to the naturally weak he was as merciless as he had been in his bullying schooldays ... it always utterly disgusted me.’ Nonetheless when the bien-pensant today says that he or she dislikes Waugh as a man and loathes his attitudes, but admires him as a writer, the attempt at judicious distinction need not be taken seriously. Waugh appeals to the aggression, insecurity and romanticism of ordinary people, having, as it were, a school holiday from caring about the welfare state. Indeed Thatcherism is partly his legacy, day-dream turned into a gross sort of reality, for Thatcherism officialises the world of school inside the state. This accounts for Thatcherism’s never fully admitted popularity. A headmaster like Kinnock, who will give the boys anything they ask for, is not likely to found a successful academy, but the sneaking admiration for the flogging headmistress has become – as have the bully-boys of the Remove and those who have made it to Pop or the Sixth – an actual element in our political ethos.

Never basely shrewd, but not with much real humour, however swollen his sense of fun, Waugh would hardly have been amused by this bizarre democratisation of his Brideshead fantasies. In a brilliant analysis – perhaps the best thing in his book, absorbing as it all is – Carpenter reveals as if accidentally the world of school inside the beau monde of Brideshead, and its rhapsody on high Catholic society. Waugh, as the hero Charles Ryder, longs to be with the real in-group; and the artist in Waugh creates Ryder’s more obviously vulgar, because successful, doppelgänger, Rex Mottram, who has a Thatcherite vision of the attainability of all the distinguished things that Waugh/Ryder secretly knows he will never achieve. Carpenter points out that Rex, like Waugh himself, accepted instruction in a matter-of-fact way, without bothering with the niceties of theology or belief. The point was to get in, or try to.

Sebastian Flyte, the perpetual child privileged both by birth and religion, makes it clear that Waugh/Ryder has no hope of achieving the schoolboy Grail, describing his fellow Catholics in the terms that he might use of fellow aristocrats. ‘They seem just like other people,’ says Ryder hopefully. ‘My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not. It’s not just that they’re a clique – as a matter of fact they’re at least four cliques all blackguarding each other all the time – but they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think is important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can but it comes out all the time.’ The sado-masochist in Waugh must have taken his own kind of satisfaction in the thought that he, like Mottram, was for ever excluded, no matter how many clubs they belonged to and distinguished meals they ordered. Ordinary readers, too, get a kick from being excluded. When Waugh converted, Edith Sitwell remarked absently to him that she saw no point in becoming a Catholic unless one belonged to one of the old Catholic families. This sense of things was not only vital to Waugh as an artist, but provided the imaginative framework which gave depth and power to the vision. A novelist of genius works with whatever his imagination brings to hand, however trivial or ridiculous this may seem to his less sympathetic readers. The stuff of Kafka’s fantasy of exclusion produced the story and symbolism of The Castle.

Waugh’s fantasies were childish as well as worldly, though their worldliness was handicapped by his lack of interest in other people as individuals: his friends were elements in his fantasy, very often its butts, the victims of its aggression. Carpenter points out the odd kinship between Brideshead and that other Oxford fantasy Alice in Wonderland, in which all the caricatures are logically related to the authorial dream. The novel has an undoubted power and resonance about it, quite lacking in Waugh’s later trilogy of military life. It was written in a bout of exaltation and excitement, after Waugh had been rejected by his grand friends in the Commandos as being totally unfitted for wartime operations and the management of troops. There is a strong compensatory element – the schoolboy showing them what he can do – as well as a potent vindictiveness, a delight in the destruction of the grandees who didn’t accept him. When in the later trilogy Waugh converts himself into a genuine Catholic of ancient lineage, Guy Crouchback, the compensatory element loses its force in masochistic self-pity. The alcoholic zest has gone from the drink.

Details in Brideshead often have the penetrating enchantment they possess in Lewis Carroll or in Kafka. The chapel at the great house, with its Art Nouveau glass and trappings, is based on the church at Madresfield, the Lygon house near Bristol. But that is mere corroborative detail: much more in keeping with true Waugh fantasy is Sebastian’s sudden whim of taking Charles Ryder to visit his old nanny at Brideshead, where the two climbed ‘uncarpeted, scrubbed elm stairs, followed more passages, covered with linoleum ... up a final staircase, gated at the head. Here were the nurseries.’ The nurseries! The grand calm of that plural has a magniloquence all the more comic for sounding so self-assured. Here is the old and golden world before the world of school – the day nursery and the night nursery, certainly, and no doubt many more besides. The depth and zeal of Waugh’s pleasure in the fact are matched only in his account of how the whisky was served at the Brideshead dinner table, each guest receiving from the butler, if he bespoke it, a decanter holding a quarter-bottle – a ritual which marks the beginning of the descent into hopeless alcoholism of Sebastian Flyte. There is a clear connection between such potent elements of Waugh’s fantasy and the fact that he himself, and the world he moved in and largely created, continue to give him the fascinating status of a sacred monster. Although Carpenter skilfully weaves the friends – Connolly, Betjeman, Anthony Powell, Brian Howard, Robert Byron – into a completed composition, the others serve chiefly to start a scene or two and swell the progress of Waugh himself. Of course this gives a misleading picture of period and individuals, but that is in a sense the object of the exercise, for the reader is more interested in legend and story than in the day-to-dayness of things. For an account of how it really was Anthony Powell’s memoirs are far more convincing, just as his roman fleuve gives a much truer picture of varieties of behaviour in the monde of the time, in Oxford, London or the country. Pansy Lamb, Powell’s sister-in-law, who liked Waugh, ventured to point out to him that the upper classes were not a bit like that really. But the ‘Brideshead Generation’ is how the reader wants them to be, and like all fantasies involving the heart the thing has its own sort of higher truth.

Carpenter’s Waugh was self-created, or made into a myth by cronies, but clearly there was another Waugh who at all ages could be pleasant, conversable, interesting, perfectly easy to get on with. The existence of this daily Waugh is stressed in the Powell memoirs, but also appears in its own right, so to speak, in Waugh’s travel books, and even in a curious form in The Loved One and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. As a profound fantasist he was deeply sympathetic to the Californian fantasy of burial, and the tour de force is also a sober labour of love. This Waugh has affiliations with Richard Boston’s Osbert Lancaster, the portrait of a connoisseur of social oddity who also loved it steadily and whole. Boston is discriminatingly informative about Lancaster’s achievement as artist and cartoonist, and about such lesser-known matters as his Greek journey in 1945, a diplomatic triumph in a time of civil war, and productive of some of his best sketches and cartoons. His artist’s eye reveals itself in the comments on the Theseion at Athens. ‘Why should this temple, the best preserved of its date in the world, built within a few years of the Parthenon and embodying all the same principles, remain by comparison so devastatingly boring? ... it produces less effect than many a Doric corn exchange in an English provincial town.’

Lancaster’s sketch of Waugh, reproduced on the front cover of Carpenter’s book below the photo of the Oxford Railway Club members in 1925, brilliantly conveys his persona: his shortness, his hairy tweeds not quite right, the angry little eyes set wide apart and still conveying something of Harold Acton’s description of him when young as ‘the laughing faun’ who appears in all the snapshots (Carpenter’s collection of these is a joy in itself). Even better is the cartoon of ‘Connolly at Canossa’, representing a gross but penitent Cyril Connolly on his knees before the Pope, sponsored by an officious but equally bloated Waugh. Lancaster was as good as Beerbohm at understanding his characters by inflating them to their own inner specification, and despite his flamboyant colourfulness he seems to have been as pleasant, courteous and domesticated as Beerbohm himself. Like Beerbohm he was at Charterhouse, which he hated and where he was bullied. No more than his friend Powell would he have been a subject for a book like Carpenter’s, which succeeds, in a sense, by creating a live Widmerpool, and suggesting some hidden connection between fiction and reality. Powell’s method, so unlike Waugh’s, is to investigate his characters rather than fitting them into a charade, and he rarely overdoes things in the Waugh manner. His female monster, Pamela Flitton, who begins brilliantly, is later allowed to lapse, perhaps by intention, into the exaggerative mode, but although Widmerpool is of course quite unlike Waugh his career is based on the same world of school and the kinds of will it entails, and his status as monster goes with intense competitiveness and insecurity. He dies in a terrible parody of a school ‘run’, struggling to get ahead in the ‘counter-culture’.

Passionately on the side of order and authority, like Widmerpool, Waugh can be seen as striving to set up the world of school in a waste land of permissiveness and democratic vulgarity. J.R. Ackerley’s world was in its own way not so different. Peter Parker has already written a searching book, The Old Lie: The Great War and the Public School Ethos, and his long and thorough account of Ackerley’s career is even better, still more revealing. Ackerley’s odd provenance, well-known from his own book, My Father and Myself, made him a mixture of unexpectedness and conventionality, with a strong streak of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who refuses to act in accordance with what seems to be his interest and advantage. He was the kind of homosexual, rarer today than in his time, who genuinely preferred the high-risk element in a forbidden activity to a civilised society which would legalise his desires and make them respectable. In this he resembled the school’s bad lot, but he was also representative of another kind of school world, a counter-culture which saw itself as both separate and superior.

Surviving the First War, in which he was wounded and taken prisoner, Ackerley also had to survive the grief felt by his parents for their elder son Peter, a brave charming boy with all the conventional school virtues who had not come home. His father, a director of the banana firm Elders and Fyffe’s and a remarkable character in his own right, sometimes addressed his younger son as ‘Peter’ in moments of pain or depression, and the young Ackerley felt the wrong one had returned, even though his father was both kind and lavish and in no way censorious when he perceived – as he quite soon did – his son’s sexual make-up. Ackerley wrote a play about his experiences, Prisoners of War, which sounds rather like an everyday contemporary Royal Court production, but which in 1920 was thought too gloomy and shapeless to be staged, in addition to containing exchanges like ‘The Fair Sex? – which one is that?’ and ‘Don’t do that – someone might come in’ – uttered by young officer to admired older one.

With a few cuts, staged the play was, however, and enjoyed a modest but definite success, bringing Ackerley to the notice of like-minded persons and starting him on what seemed a promising literary career. But he never managed to write another play, although Girolamo, a Renaissance tragedy, lingered on the stocks for years, and he must have been cast down by the post-war boom in war plays like Journey’s End, a piece certainly much inferior to his own. Sex obviously inspired him to write, but earned him friendship rather than fame or recognition. His poem ‘Ghosts’, taken by Jack Squire for the London Mercury, brought a letter from E.M. Forster which led to a lifelong relationship. Forster’s Egyptian tram-driver, Mohammed el Adl, had recently died of consumption, and Forster was moved by the poem, in which a young man has a sudden wish to look up the letters of a dead friend.

Can they still live,
Beckon and cry
Over the years
After they die,
Bringing us grief,
Bringing us tears?

In his diary Forster wrote of the Egyptian friend: ‘I want him to tell me that he is dead, and so set me free to make an image of him.’ Ackerley saw ‘Ghosts’ as a ‘not very worthy midwife’ to a lifelong friendship, but also felt it a ‘genuine utterance’ rather than the schoolboy posing of his other verse. He recorded Forster’s kind habit of ‘writing to people to thank them for whatever they did that pleased or moved him; as well as the pleasure he himself derived he believed in praise and thought that far too little of it was given.’ Forster indeed could never have enough of it, but Ackerley himself remained the most modest of men, with no tendency to overvalue his own performances, even when, towards the end of his career, he suddenly struck, in My Dog Tulip and We think the world of you, a highly original and effective vein of his own.

‘Dearest my Morgan’ remained the perfect school chum but probably nothing more, for both men tended to be drawn to heterosexual contacts. While Waugh acted the unmerciful bully at Lancing, Ackerley at Rossall had founded a literary magazine called the Wasp, in which he printed rather daring verses.

He loved him for his face,
His pretty head and fair complexion,
  His natural lissom grace,
  But trusted not his own affection.

Affections were notoriously distrusted at Rossall, as Peter Parker dryly points out, and Ackerley’s housemaster was soon on the alert. But whether at school or in the in many ways similar proletarian milieu he favoured later on, Ackerley had the knack of falling on his feet. With the good looks of a Kipling hero he found promiscuity easy, and his exploits both worried and fascinated Forster, among whose many services to his friend was the introduction to the Maharajah of Chatarpur, an episode which produced Hindoo Holiday. P.N. Furbank’s biography of Forster has already introduced us to Daley, his first friend in the Police Force, and Parker gives a wonderfully comprehensive and sympathetic account of life in the Section House of the Hammersmith Division, where tough ex-Guardsmen boxed and rowed, lounged in their cubicles together and went in for a bit of petty larceny. Daley, a gentle ‘soppy’ soul who made no secret of his tastes, was treated with tolerance and good humour: indeed the reader can hardly help being struck, as Ackerley so forcibly was, by how much nicer this sort of school was than the upper-class variety. It converted Ackerley to his own individualistic variety of socialism.

In 1928 he joined the BBC and shortly afterwards began the distinguished career as Literary Editor of the Listener which continued until 1959. He then set off for Japan, having made friends with the poet James Kirkup, who claimed to have put the evil eye on the arrogant (though highly readable) historian H.A.L. Fisher, who was immediately mown down by a bus. Ackerley had been seeking for years ‘the perfect friend’ and never finding him, partly because of social incompatibilities and partly because of sexual ones: Ackerley suffered from ejaculatio praecox. He also had a difficult time with his formidable sister Nancy, whose black turbulences made her famous, and with his kindly but scatty mother Natta, known for her fondness for medicaments as Puss in Boots. All these problems were resolved by the acquisition of the celebrated Alsatian bitch Queenie. Canine love no doubt overlooks all sexual problems, although his friends – Forster in particular – both feared and detested Queenie, who was nothing if not jealous. Parker points out that Tulip, which blows the gaff on the whole dog world, is a work of enormous humour. To have humour, as opposed to farce, you must be really interested. Sadly, Waugh never was.