Goodbye mr chips to you.., p.1
TO YOU, MR. CHIPS
1. A Chapter of Autobiography
2. Gerald and the Candidate
3. Young Waveney
4. Mr. Chips Takes a Risk
5. Mr. Chips Meets a Sinner
6. Mr. Chips Meets a Star
7. Merry Christmas, Mr. Chips
A CHAPTER OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY
If I use the word 'I' a good deal in these pages, it is not from self-importance, but because I would rather talk about my own schooldays than generalise about school. Schooling is perhaps the most universal of all experiences, but it is also one of the most individual. (Here I am, generalising already!) No two schools are alike, but more than that--a school with two hundred pupils is really two hundred schools, and among them, almost certainly, are somebody's long-remembered heaven and somebody else's hell. So that I must not conceal, but rather lay stress on the first personal pronouns. The schools I write of were my schools; to others at the same schools at the same time, everything may have been different.
I went to three schools altogether--an elementary school, a grammar school, and a public school. I matriculated at London University and spent four years at Christ's College, Cambridge. Thus, from the age of six, when my mother led me through suburban streets for presentation to the headmistress of the nearest Infants' Department, up to the age of twenty-three, when I left Cambridge supposedly equipped for the world and its problems, the process called my education was going on. Seventeen years--quite a large slice out of a life, when you come to think about it. And yet the ways I have earned my living since--by writing newspaper articles, novels, and film scenarios--were not taught me at any of these schools and colleges. Furthermore, though I won scholarships and passed examinations, I do not think I now remember more than twenty per cent of all I learned during these seventeen years, and I do not think I could now scrape through any of the examinations I passed after the age of twelve.
Nor was there any sort of co-ordination between my three schools and the university. For this, nobody was to blame in a free country. To some extent, I learned what I liked; to a greater extent, my teachers taught me what they liked. In my time I 'took,' as they say, practically every subject takable. At the elementary school, for instance, I spent an hour a week on 'botany,' which was an excuse for wandering through Epping Forest in charge of a master who, in his turn, regarded the hour as an excuse for a pleasant smoke in the open air. The result is that Botany to me today stands for just a few words like 'calyx,' 'stamen,' and 'capillary attraction,' plus the memory of lovely hours amidst trees and bracken. I do not complain.
Again, at the grammar school I spent six hours a week for three years at an occupation called 'Chemistry,' and all these hours have left me with nothing but a certain skill in blowing glass tubes into various shapes. In mathematics I went as far as the calculus, but I do not think I could be quite sure nowadays of solving a hard quadratic equation. Of languages I learned (enough to pass examinations in them) Latin, Greek, French, and German. I suppose I could still read Virgil or Sophocles with the help of a dictionary, but I do not do so, because it would give me no pleasure. My French and German are of the kind that is understood by sympathetic Frenchmen and Germans who know English.
The only school-learning of which I remember a good deal belongs to English Literature, History, and Music; but even in these fields my knowledge is roving rather than academic, and I could no longer discuss with any degree of accuracy the debt of Shakespeare to Saxo-Grammaticus or the statute De Heretico Comburendo. In fact, although I am, in the titular sense, a Scholar of my college, I do not feel myself to be very scholarly. But give me a new theory about Emily Brontë or read me a pamphlet about war and peace, and I will tell you whether, in my view, the author is worth listening to. To make up for all I have forgotten, there is this that I have acquired, and I call it sophistication since it is not quite the same thing as learning. It is the flexible armour of doubt in an age when too many people are certain.
What all this amounts to, whether my seventeen years were well spent, whether I am a good or a bad example of what schooling can do, whether I should have been a better citizen if I had gone to work at fourteen, I cannot say. I can only reply in the manner of the youth who, on being asked if he had been educated at Eton, replied: 'That is a matter of opinion.'
The elementary school was in one of the huge dormitory suburbs of north-east London--a suburb which people from Hampstead or Chelsea would think entirely characterless, but which, if one lived in it for twenty years as I did, revealed a delicate and by no means unlikeable quality of its own. I am still a young man, and I suppose that for the next twenty years people will go on calling me 'one of our younger novelists'; but whenever nowadays I pass by that elementary school, I realise what an age it is since I breathed its prevalent smell of ink, strong soap, and wet clothes. Just over a quarter of a century, to be precise, but it cannot be measured by that reckoning. The world today looks back on the pre-War world as a traveller may look back through a railway tunnel to the receding pinpoint of light in the distance. It is more than the past; it is already a legend.
To this legend my earliest recollections of school life belong. My father was the headmaster of another school in the same town, and I was a good deal petted and favoured by his colleagues. There were quite a few dirty and ragged boys in the class of seventy or so; the school itself was badly heated and badly lit; schoolbooks were worn and smeary because every boy had to follow the words with his finger as he read--an excusable rule, for it was the only way the teacher could see at a glance if his multitude were all paying attention. He was certainly not to blame because I found his reading lessons a bore. At the time that I was spelling out 'cat-sat-on-the-mat' stuff at school, I was racing through Dickens, Thackeray, and Jules Verne at home.
The school curriculum had its oddities. Mathematics was divided into Arithmetic, Algebra, and Mensuration. (Why this last had a special name and subdivision, I have no idea.) Geography consisted largely of learning the special names of capes, bays, countries, and county towns. When a teacher once told me that Cardigan Bay was the largest in Great Britain, I remember asking him promptly what was the smallest. He was somewhat baffled. But I have always been interested in miniature things, and perhaps I was right in supposing that England's smallest bay, were it to be identified would be worth knowing. This teacher gave me full marks, however, because I attained great proficiency in copying maps with a fine-nibbed pen--a practice which enabled me to outline all the coasts with what appeared to be a fringe of stubbly hairs.
I was not so good at history because, in the beginning I could not make head or tail of most of it. When I read that So-and-so 'gathered his army and laid waste to the country,' I could not imagine what it meant. I had heard of gathering flowers and laying an egg, but these other kinds of gathering and laying were more mystifying, and nobody bothered to explain them to me. They remained just phrases that one had to learn and repeat. I was also puzzled by the vast number of people in history who were put to death because they would not change their religion; indeed, the entire fuss about religion throughout history was inexplicable to a boy whose father played the organ at a Congregational Church during the reign of Edward the Seventh.
Since then I have helped to write school history books and have found out for myself the immense difficulty of teaching the subject to children. It is not the words only that have to be simplified, but the ideas--and if you over-simplify ideas, you often falsify them. Hence the almost inevitable perversion of history into a series of gags, anecdotes, labels--that So-and-so was a 'good' king, that Henry th
'Scripture' was another subject I did not excel at. It consisted of a perfunctory reading of a daily passage from the Bible; and our Bibles were always dirty, ragged, and bound in black. They left me with an impression of a book I did not want to handle, much less to read; it is only during the past ten years that I have read the Bible for pleasure. Our school Bibles also suffered from too small print; some of the words in the text were in italics and nobody explained to me that the reason for this concerned scholars more than schoolboys. Not long ago I heard a local preacher who seemed to me, when reading from the Psalms, to give certain sentences an unusual rhythm, and on inquiry I found that he had always imagined that the words in italics had to be accented! Why not print an abridged and large-print Bible for schools, consolidating groups of verses into paragraphs, and finally binding the whole as attractively as any other book? Maybe this has been done, and I am out of date for suggesting it.
Another oddity of my early schooldays was something called a free-arm system of hand writing--it consisted of holding the wrist rigid and moving the pen by means of the forearm muscle. I can realise now that somebody got his living by urging this fad on schoolmasters who liked to be thought modern or were amenable to sales-talk; I thought it nonsense at the time and employed some resolution in not learning it.
Perhaps the chief thing I did learn at my first school was that my father (then earning about six pounds a week) was a rich man. When, later on, I went to schools at which he seemed (in the same comparative sense) a poor man, I had the whole social system already sketch-mapped in my mind, and I did not think it perfect.
The school was perhaps a better-than-average example, both structurally and educationally, of its type; so I can only conjecture what conditions were like at the worst schools in the worst parts of London. I do know that there have been tremendous improvements since those days; that free meals and medical inspections have smoothed down the rougher differences between the poor man's child and others; that, under Hitler and Stalin and Neville Chamberlain alike, the starved and ragged urchin has become a rarity. Such a trend is common throughout the world and we need not be complacent about it, since its motive is as much militaristic as humanitarian. But it does remain, intrinsically, a mighty good thing. I believe I would have benefited a lot from the improved elementary school of today. I might not have learned any more, but I should probably have had better teeth.
From the elementary school I went to a grammar school in the same suburb. It was an old foundation (as old as Harrow), but it had come down in the world. I had the luck to have for a form-master a man who was very deaf. I call it 'luck,' because he was an excellent teacher and would probably have attached himself to a much better school but for his affliction. As it was, his discipline was the best in the school--with the proviso, of course, that his eyes had to do vigilance for his ears. The result was that, in addition to Latin, English, and History, I gained in his class another proficiency that has never been of the slightest use to me since--ventriloquism.
I was devoted to that man (and I am sure he never guessed it). His frown could spoil my day, his rare slanting smile could light it up. I was conceited enough to think that he took some special interest in me, just because he read out my essays publicly to the class; and after I sent him in an essay I used to picture the excitement he must feel on reading it. It did not occur to me that, like most good professionals (as opposed to amateurs), he did his job conscientiously but without hysterical enthusiasm, and that during out-of-school hours he would rather have a drink and a chat with a friend than read the best schoolboy's essay ever written.
Once he wrote on the blackboard some sentences for parsing and analysis. Among them was: 'Dreams such as thine pass now like evening clouds before me; when I think how beautiful they seem, 'tis but to feel how soon they fade, how fast the night shuts in.' I was so struck with this that I sat for a long time thinking of it; and presently, noticing my idleness, he asked me rather sharply why I wasn't working. I couldn't tell him, partly because I hardly knew, partly because any answer would have had to be shouted at the top of my voice on account of his deafness. I let him think I was just lazy, yet in my heart I never forgave him for not understanding.
Children are merciless--as much in what they expect as in what they offer. Not only will they bait unmercifully a schoolmaster who lacks the power to discipline them, but they lavish the most fantastic and unreasonable adorations. The utmost bond of lover and mistress is less than the comprehension a boy expects from a schoolmaster whom he has singled out for worship. I cannot imagine any more desperate situation for a school than the one in which this grammar school found itself. (It has since moved to another site, so nothing I say can bear any current reflection.) Flanked on one side by a pickle-factory, it shared its other aspects between the laundry of the municipal baths and a busy thoroughfare lined by market-stalls. Personally I rather liked the rococo liveliness of such surroundings. I grew used to the pervading smell of chutney and steaming bath-towels, to the cries of costers selling oranges and cough-drops, and it was fun to step out of the classroom on winter evenings and search a book-barrow lit by naphtha-flares, or listen to a Hindu peddling a corn-cure. And there was a roaring music-hall nearby, with jugglers and Little Tich and Gertie Gitana; and on Friday nights outside the municipal baths a strange-eyed long haired soap-boxer talked anarchism. Somehow it was all rather like Nijni Novgorod, though I have never seen Nijni Novgorod.
I probably learned more in the street than I did in the school, but the latter did leave me with a good grammatical foundation in Latin, as well as a certain facility in the use of woodworking tools. (Since then I have usually made my own bookshelves.) One of the teachers made us learn three solid pages of Sir Walter Scott's prose from The Talisman (a passage, I still remember, beginning--'Beside his couch stood Thomas de Vaux, in face, attitude and manner the strongest possible contrast to the suffering monarch'); the intention, I suppose, was that we might somehow learn to write a bit more like Scott; but as I did not want to write like Scott at all, the effort of memory was rather wasted.
I worked hard at this grammar school, chiefly because homework was piled on by various masters acting independently of each other. I was a quick worker, but often I did not finish till nearly midnight, and how the slower workers managed I can only imagine. I have certainly never worked so hard in my life since, and it has often struck me as remarkable that an age that restricts the hours of child-employment in industry should permit the much harder routine of schoolwork by day and homework in the evenings. A twelve-hour shift is no less harmful for a boy or girl because it is spent over books; indeed, the overworked errand-boy is less to be pitied. Unless conditions have changed (and I know that in some schools they haven't), there are still many thousands of child-slaves in this country.
The chief reason for such slavery is probably the life-and-death struggle for examination distinctions in which most schools are compelled to take part. And that again is based on the whole idea of pedagogy which has survived, with less change than one might think, from the Middle Ages. It is perhaps a pity that the average school curriculum fits a pupil for one profession better than any other--that of school-mastering. It is a pity because the clever schoolboy is tempted into the only profession in which his store of knowledge is of immediate practical value in getting him a job, and is then tempted to emphasise the value of passing on precisely that same knowledge to others. He is somewhat in the position of a shopkeeper whose aim is less to sell people what they need than to get rid of what he has in stock. The circle is vexatious, but I would not call it vi
So I defend (somewhat tepidly) a classical education for the very reason that so many people attack it. It is of small practical value in a world whose practical values are mostly wrong; it is 'waste time' in a world whose time had better be wasted than spent in most of its present activities. My Mr. Chips, who went on with his Latin lesson while the Zeppelins were dropping bombs, was aware that he was 'wasting' the possibly last moments of himself and his pupils, but he believed that at any rate he was wasting them with dignity and without malice.
The War broke out while I was still at the suburban grammar school; during that last lovely June of the pre-War era, I had won a scholarship to a public school in Hertfordshire. I remember visiting a charming little country town and being quartered there at a temperance hotel in company with other entrants. The school sent its German master to look after us--a pleasant, sandy-haired, kind-faced man with iron-rimmed spectacles and a guttural accent--almost the caricatured Teuton whom, two months later, we were all trying to hate. I forget his name, and as I never saw him or the school again, I do not know what happened to him.
I never saw the place again because my father, poring over the prospectus, discovered that the school possessed both a rifle-range and an Officers' Training Corps--symbols of the War that, above all things, he hated. He had been a pacifist long before he ever called himself one (indeed, he never liked the term), and it is literally true to say that he would not hurt a fly--for my mother could never use a fly-swat if he were in the same room. Yet I know that if anyone had broken into our house and attacked my mother or me--the kind of problem put two years later by truculent army officers to nervous conscientious objectors--it would have been no problem at all to my father; he would have died in battle. He was no sentimentalist. When a bad disciplinarian on his teaching staff once asked him what he (my father) would say if a boy squirted ink at him, my father answered promptly: 'It isn't what I'd say, it's what I'd do.' And he would have--though I cannot imagine that he ever had to. Boys in his presence always gave an impression of enjoying liberty without taking liberties. He was a strong man, physically--a good swimmer, a good cricketer, nothing of the weakling about him; and to call him a pacifist is merely to exemplify his fighting capacity for lost causes. It never occurred to me then, and it rarely occurs to me now, that any of his ideas were fundamentally wrong. He was and happily is still a mixture of Cobbett and Tagore with a dash of aboriginal John Bull.