And Is There Honey Still For Tea? (8 page)


Sir James Digby

I went to school at the age of eleven. It has become fashionable now to hate one's boarding school; to talk (and in some cases write) endlessly about its snobbishness and prejudice, its petty jealousies and ingrained brutalities, its unquestioning conformity to the ideals of King and Country, its toleration of bullying and privileged cliques, its promotion of sports above intellectual pursuits, and all its other failings. All of that is true, and much more besides. But I did not hate Baxendale. Its setting in rural Derbyshire was pretty enough and the masters, for the most part, were competent teachers and interested in the boys. There was fagging; there was corporal punishment, applied rather too often and with too much enthusiasm, often by the prefects or other more senior boys; there were house rivalries; there was rugby and cross-country running in freezing cold weather; there were toilets and showers with no doors; the food was variable; and there was no toleration of missing home and family, so it could be a lonely place.

But I did well enough at Baxendale to earn my place at Trinity without extending myself too greatly. The small primary school my brother and I both attended in Clitheroe, where we wrote sentences and simple sums in chalk on slate boards, took its duties seriously. Our teacher, Mrs Chamberlain, a stout lady in her late fifties, was kind and patient. But, even before our first day at school, both Roger and I were tutored by our mother in reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and telling the time, which she believed could not be taught too early, and which she did not wholly trust Mrs Chamberlain to teach as they should be taught. As a result, we both had the blessing and the curse of being considered advanced for our age. By the time I reached Baxendale I had no trouble keeping myself towards the top of the class in most subjects. This might have marked me out for a certain amount of harassment from the sporting fraternity, except for the fact that I was a passable outside half, and I did not mind turning out for my house, and later the school. I was not particularly big or particularly fast, but I believe I was one of the few boys who saw rugby as a game of strategy, rather than simply an excuse to fight each other and get covered with mud without being punished. I began to see how the game could unfold. I saw how I could control the game from the number 10 position; and how I could mislead the opposing defence as to the direction of play; and how, by showing the ball to a defender – preferably a heavy, immobile prop forward – I could create a gap for a break, or open up a pathway for my inside centre to run on to the ball. I was not strong in defence, but that weakness is charitably overlooked in outside halves who have attacking ability, and my wing forwards always covered for me when we were defending our own line against a heavy onslaught by the opposition. Our rugby master, who had played for his native Yorkshire, and had been mentioned as a possible candidate for international honours, encouraged me to take up the game more seriously with a view to getting my ‘Blue' at Cambridge. But the game did not appeal to me quite that much, and I see now, with hindsight, that my ability to read a game of rugby was my chess brain working before I had discovered my flair for chess. It was chess that was to become my passion.

I had learned how to move the pieces from my father, but he had little interest in the game, and ranked it together with draughts or, for that matter, whist or snakes and ladders. But my house master, Mr Armitage, a good club and county level player, ran a chess club for the boys before prep on Tuesday evenings. For whatever reason, I decided to go almost as soon as I arrived at school. From the first moment I took one of the carved pieces in my hand and moved it from one square to another, I knew that my life had somehow changed. I did not know why or how, just that it had. Mr Armitage's subject was chemistry, but I always sensed that chess meant far more to him, and that if there had been a way for him to make a living by playing or teaching chess, he would have left Baxendale behind him years before. Mr Armitage was not content – at least in my case – to allow boys to throw the pieces around the board without instruction, in the hope that they would eventually learn. He had realised that most boys would abandon the game out of boredom long before they learned anything worthwhile. So he taught us to read chess notation so that we could read and play through published games. He kept a good selection of chess books in his rooms, and any boy was free to borrow a book as long as he signed for it. I was one of the few who did. Once I got used to it, I found it easy to set up the board and follow the moves the players had made, and I began to see why one player had won and the other had lost the game. In most of the books, the games were accompanied by commentary from a master or grandmaster, which made it easier to understand what had happened. I began to see patterns in combinations of moves which recurred in different games, and why certain positions were strong or weak. I learned that there were standard opening moves, both for White and Black – the Ruy Lopez, the Queen's Gambit, the French Defence.

After some time Mr Armitage started to invite me to come to his rooms for an hour. He would sometimes play games against me himself, making suggestions as to what moves I might play as we went along. Sometimes he would set me problems: White to play and win in four moves, Black to play and force a draw. Sometimes he would select a book and work through a game with me, asking me why such and such a move had been played, why White had refused the offer of a pawn, how Black could have improved his defence. Through those games, I began to learn about the great masters of the past – Anderssen, Steinitz, and Morphy – and the more modern players, particularly Capablanca. I began to see how their styles of play differed from each other. It was quite obvious to me that Mr Armitage saw more in these games than simple technical proficiency. When Morphy won a game with a dazzling sacrifice of a piece, it was, to him, a thing of beauty, a work of art capable of producing feelings comparable to those evoked by van Gogh's paintings or Mozart's music. He never once explained himself to me in those terms, but as I listened to him speak about the games, I understood clearly the effect they had on him.

Nonetheless, when I experienced such a feeling myself, it took me utterly by surprise.

‘I want to show you a game,' he said one evening, ‘which I think you will like. It was played not very long before you were born. It has a remarkably pretty ending.'

He lit his pipe as I set up the board, and he showed me Edward Lasker v Sir George Thomas, a game played in London in 1912. I remember to this day the effect the game produced on me. When it ended on the 18th move with Lasker forcing checkmate, I suddenly started to cry. I could find no words. My hands were trembling. I felt my mind departing, without any conscious action on my part, for that silent limitless place I had learned to visit as a child. Now, it felt as if I were fainting away, and I dug the nails of one hand into the palm of the other to bring myself back. Mr Armitage said nothing. He respected my privacy by turning towards the window, and continued to smoke his pipe.

What was it about this game? I have thought about that question many times since, and all I can say is that it is truly astonishing. It starts out with a routine queen's pawn opening, a variation of the Dutch Defence. After ten moves White has some spatial advantage, but that is nothing unusual – White has the advantage of the first move – and after ten moves Thomas must have felt that he had a rather defensive, but quite playable game. Then: devastation, lightning from a clear sky. On his 11
move Lasker sacrifices his queen – his most powerful piece – on h7. It is a move so unexpected, so apparently suicidal, that it is utterly shocking. Thomas has no option but to accept the sacrifice, taking the queen with his king, because the king is in check and has nowhere else to go. Of course, Lasker had foreseen each of the next seven moves, and calculated that Thomas had no defence against the unrelenting assault on his king that followed. But it is the way in which the checkmate is forced that is so beautiful. First White's two knights perform a ballet, a graceful, but deadly
pas de deux
, circling each other, forcing the black king first to h6, then to g5, away from his place of safety. Then the remaining pieces take over, dancing together in a perfectly choreographed sequence. Two pawns stab at the king in turn, brutally direct where the knights were so subtle, giving one stab each, driving the king down the board as far as f3, into the heart of White's territory. A bishop and rook join the chase, giving one check each, pushing the king to g1. He has travelled the full length of the board, seven squares from where he stood, unsuspecting, when Lasker began the combination with the queen sacrifice. He is completely encircled and cut off from the friendly forces that might have defended him. Finally, a casual move of the white king to d2 exposes the black king to White's other rook, which checkmates the king without even moving from its square. The king has no more moves left. The game was an impressive piece of calculation by Lasker. But the beauty of the game lies not just in the calculation, but also in the sheer elegance of the solution; the delicate dance of the white pieces combining against the king with perfect efficiency, each of them playing an essential role in the victory; the pathetic final image of the black king, stranded helplessly so far from home. This is high drama. It is beauty in the sense that theatre is beautiful. But it is also beautiful in the sense that pure mathematics is beautiful, when a profound logic is reduced to a simplicity of breath-taking elegance.

I know now, with a greater experience of life, that I fell in love that evening. I am sure Mr Armitage knew that, but he did not say so. He was wise enough to let me come to terms with it myself. He allowed me to recover my composure, and we played a couple of casual games at 10 seconds a move before I went to prep. I have been moved by great art since, by van Gogh and Mozart, and by the Sonnets when I came to reread them as an adult. I have been moved romantically, as I was for the first time a few years later when I first saw Bridget on our lawn at the manor house, wearing her thin summer dress, barefoot, during an unexpected warm summer downpour, laughing delightedly at the rain, with no thought of seeking shelter. But I have not been moved by anything in my life as I was moved that evening by Lasker v Thomas, London 1912.

I decided that evening that I would devote my life to chess, as far as it was possible. I wrote to Roger about it. He replied.


December 1924


I have your letter of the 26
ult., the receipt of which affords me great satisfaction, but from which I apprehend that you may have become engaged in a most hazardous endeavour. I do not doubt but that your most excellent intellect and disposition equip you abundantly for success in this most gallant of games. Yet, sir, I know of at least one gentleman, possessed of the most admirable qualities of spirit and mind, who in the pursuit of that occupation so neglected his business, his religious duty, his family and his estate that he permitted himself to fall into ruination. This man, sir, might have aspired to the highest offices of the Church or the Law, but he ruined himself to such a degree that he was compelled to seek his fortune in some uncivilised corner of the world. Out of the natural affection I bear you, my dear sir, I implore you to take heed of his example.

I dined pleasantly last evening at the house master's residence, where I found Carstairs, Malcolm, and others, together with a divine of the Scottish church, the Rev McHenry of Glasgow, a guest of the house master. Carstairs (to the said divine): ‘Sir, is it not true that there is little merit to be found in the city in which you minister?' The minister would have spoken, but I intervened in his defence. ‘Nay, sir,' I replied to Carstairs, ‘for when a man is tired of Glasgow, he is tired of life.' Work presses much upon me, masters clamour for my pages, but I remain otherwise unharmed, and your most humble and devoted servant,

Sam Johnson

Mr Armitage arranged for me to begin to play in tournaments for my age group, though there were only a few available, organised occasionally by the local chess clubs. By now I was making progress on an exponential level, because I had seen into the inner workings of the game and I was approaching an intimate understanding of its governing first principles – a stage which I truly believe eludes the vast majority of players. It is the most creative stage of any pursuit to see and understand its
prima materia
. It unlocks every door in the mind. Mr Armitage and I progressed into a study of basic endgames. I learned to checkmate the lone king with king and queen, then with king and rook, then with king and two bishops, and finally the fiendishly difficult ending with king, bishop and knight. We went on to basic pawn and rook and pawn endings. I have always believed that an affinity for the endgame, the most pure form of chess, marks out the greatest players. Anyone can learn a repertoire of sound openings, but each endgame is different, and the ability to force the win or salvage a draw in the often complex reaches of the endgame is crucial to success in serious play. I was beating Mr Armitage in equal combat fairly consistently by the end of my first year, and he wrote to my father asking if he might take me to compete in the County under-15 Championship during the summer.


My father kept the trophy from that first tournament on the mantelpiece in his study for the rest of his life. There were to be others during those years at school, the County Championship, the British Boys Championship, and more. I had joined the chess club in the town, and I was in the process of building my own chess library. Armed with suggestions from Mr Armitage, I asked any relatives interested in buying me presents to give chess books. Everyone knew what I wanted for Christmas or my birthday. All they had to do was to ask me for a title. Some aunts and uncles gave up asking and simply sent book tokens twice a year. It was not long before a useful library began to take shape.

My decision to devote my life to chess was, of course, less successful. I had judged it best to say nothing of my plans until I was within sight of going up to Trinity. It was inevitable that in my final year of school, I would give some thought to what subject I would read once I reached Cambridge. Looking back now, I see how remarkable it was that I did not once doubt that I would get a place there to read whatever I chose to read. I was working hard, and the school had good connections with Trinity. But my parents worried that I was playing too much chess, devoting too much time to studying the game. They warned me that my academic results would suffer. They never did. It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it that, when you understand the governing first principles of a discipline, it costs little mental energy to pursue it. You can carry on with your other activities with no loss of energy as long as you budget your time carefully. I duly got top marks in my higher examination in English, French, and German, and was offered a place to go up to Trinity in October 1931.

When I came home from school for the last time in June, I had the inevitable discussion with my father. I remember the evening well, warm and balmy, the French windows of the study open to the lawn of the manor house, as I took a glass of brandy with him after dinner. I knew that much had changed since Roger had stood in that same place for his interview four years earlier. He had embarked on a trip through France; there had seemed to be little sense of urgency about his future plans. At Trinity, he had read classics and philosophy, subjects which had nothing very much to do with his future as a baronet running an estate in rural Lancashire. But even then, there had been signs that things were changing.

The General Strike had unnerved the country. Even my father's friends in London, who thought of themselves as remote from the heartland of the British working classes, were affected by the human misery which was all too obviously on display. We were a northern family. My father felt a sense of obligation to the people of the North, towards whom the Government often seemed to act so contemptuously. Our family was unusual in having a car, a large Austin saloon. As we drove around Lancashire and sometimes into Yorkshire, Roger and I all too often saw boys of our own age, in very different circumstances to ours. We saw ragged, barefoot children chewing on crusts. We saw the faces of their fathers and mothers and, even at our young age, we learned to recognise the look of hopelessness and despair. My father would sometimes stop the car to talk to people he saw in the street in some dying textile or mill town, and I am still haunted by the memory of children pressing their noses up against the windows of the car, gazing intently on the intimate details of a life they had no hope of sharing. In 1929 there was the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, and the feeling that the British way of life was truly under threat. The estate suffered greatly from the Depression. How much it had been depleted my father never confided in me, though I know that my mother fully expected to lose the Manor and spent nights on end crying over it. By 1931, socialist societies were springing up in every city and in every university, but the Labour Party suffered a disastrous defeat in the general election.

‘Roger will take over the Baronetcy and the running of the estate, of course,' he began, as we settled ourselves into armchairs turned to face out into the shadows which were just beginning to fall over the darkening grass and trees. ‘I had hoped that the estate might provide you with some income, so that you could at least have something while you were setting yourself up. But I am afraid that seems unlikely at present. Still, that's all three years away. Things may have picked up again by the time you graduate.'

It was said without conviction.

‘Have you given some consideration to what you will read?'

‘Not really.'

‘I don't see you as the clerical type,' he smiled.

‘I have no real religious convictions, I'm afraid.'

He drained his glass and stood to pour us both a re-fill.

‘I'm not sure that's an insuperable barrier in the Church of England.'

We shared a laugh. We were both very fond of our vicar, Norman Jarrett, an amiable man who always seemed very flexible on any question of doctrine. We turned up at church on the major feast days, and Remembrance Sunday. He and his wife, Ada, were frequent guests at the Manor. But he had never inspired me in religious terms.

‘I have no doubt that you could get your commission in the Regiment. But the way things are going in Europe …'

He left the rest of the sentence unspoken, but I knew exactly what he meant. Already there were many who predicted the rise of fascism and a conflict with socialism, many who could feel the first tremors from the dormant social fault-lines beneath the surface of politics in Spain and Germany.

‘I had thought of going to the Bar,' I said. It was true. I felt no great enthusiasm for the law. I was not afraid of public speaking, but neither did I find it a powerful attraction. The great advantage of the Bar, as I saw it, would be that I would be self-employed and free to devote time to chess whenever practice permitted. My father had a lot of connections, and I was sure that he would speak to a few solicitors about sending some work my way.

He took a thoughtful drink from his glass.

‘Well, you could do a lot worse. It can be difficult in the early days, I believe, but I am sure we can sort something out about that. Yes, I think that might be very good for you. Would you practice in London or up here? I am told that you can have a good practice in Liverpool or Manchester these days.'

‘I am not sure,' I replied. ‘I must make some inquiries. I will have to join an Inn of Court and eat some dinners, and I am sure I will meet people who can advise me there.'

He nodded. ‘I know two or three High Court judges,' he said, ‘all members of Lincoln's Inn, if I remember rightly. I will make arrangements for you to be introduced to them.'

He stood and walked to the French windows. It was almost completely dark now and he quietly pulled them shut and locked the bolt.

‘It will be a load off my mind, and off Roger's too, I'm sure, if you have a solid profession to fall back on. I suspect the Bar is one which will thrive in almost any economic circumstances. I don't think it matters much what you read at Trinity, does it? You will do your legal studies at the Inns of Court, and take the Bar exams, when you come down, won't you?'

And so it was settled. As it did not matter much, I decided to read modern languages, with an emphasis on German, a language I had mastered with ease at school. My French was also fairly good, and would serve as my second language. I never told my father that the only profession I truly wanted was the profession of a chess player. I had intended to tell him. I had rehearsed the scene many times during the preceding five years. But with the decline of the economy, the beginnings of social unrest here and in Europe; with the sense of unease that underlay the outwardly confident society in which my family moved; with the difficult times I knew the family and the estate faced, I could not bring myself to tell him that I had fallen in love with a profession which was no profession, which could offer no means of support. I knew by then that in England, in the West, that was the truth about chess. It was an amusing, harmless, respectable pastime engaged in by amateurs who made their money by their pursuits in the real world. It was not an art form which could move people, much less one which offered a living, however meagre.

I knew others who had made their mark in the chess world, of course. I had sat across the board from Hugh Alexander, Harry Golombek, and Stuart Milner-Barry, all strong players with grandmaster potential. Hugh and Roger had been up at Cambridge together; Hugh had taken a First in mathematics at Kings. Their lives and mine would intertwine both on and off the chess board in the years to come. We had never spoken much about playing professionally because the option did not exist. We knew that it was different in the Soviet Union. Even then, though the great age of Soviet chess still lay some years in the future, the Soviets had adopted chess as a symbol of the success of Marxist-Leninist thought. Their success was a matter of national pride. They set up schools to train promising young talent, held many state-sponsored tournaments, and provided a modest state income to some of their most gifted players. It all came at a price, of course. It was a form of propaganda. We knew that. We were not naïve. But it was hard not to let a part of your mind drift enviously towards the East.

I had read a great deal about chess history by then. I knew how indifferent every western culture had been towards the game: even in England during the days of Howard Staunton and Henry Bird, who could have mounted a respectable challenge to any player in the world. Any player with grandmaster potential ever since had been an amateur, perhaps eking out some travel money by means of journalism or writing books, but otherwise dependent on his job in the bank or the civil service or, like Mr Armitage, the school. There were issues of class, too. No man of proper breeding could be seen to be a chess player, any more than he could take to the stage or accept money for playing cricket.

For reasons which will be all too obvious, I was profoundly affected by the story of Paul Morphy, ‘the Pride and Sorrow of Chess' and undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses the game has ever produced. Morphy came from a well-to-do Creole family in New Orleans, a family which regarded it as utterly unacceptable, socially speaking, for one of its sons to play chess, except perhaps occasionally for pleasure, while sipping a mint julep on the porch during a lazy, humid, Louisiana afternoon. Morphy did what was expected of him and practised as an attorney, though apparently without enthusiasm and with little distinction. He fought against the social chains for long enough to be acclaimed as the unofficial champion of the world, having made a triumphant visit to Europe during which he demolished all the strongest players of his day. He was recognised for the genius he was in the chess world, and by some intellectuals outside it – Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke at a dinner in his honour in Boston after his return from Europe. But in the end, the chains regained their hold on him. The demands of his social situation, which he had already hopelessly compromised, prevented the continuation of what could only have been the most brilliant career. His mind began to decline. He eventually went completely mad, gave up chess, and shut himself up in his house, leaving only to visit the Café du Monde or the Court of the Two Sisters, walking hurriedly through the streets, talking incomprehensibly to himself, until his death at the age of 47. Years later, I visited his house. It is still there for anyone to see, in the Rue des Ursulines. I stood outside for a long time, and found myself weeping.

Roger wrote to me not long before I went up to Trinity.


3 July 1931


Nothing could afford me greater delight than the prospect of your impending admission as an undergraduate at the College. I own freely that I owe much to the divines and fellows of that most excellent institution for the development of my own faculties, to which pursuit, perceived by many to be utterly futile, they most selflessly devoted themselves for some three long years. I am greatly in their debt, more so than I can repay. But have every hope, my dear sir, that your skill in the elegant German language will in some measure compensate for my own lamentable deficiencies in the realm of more ancient tongues, and so restore to some degree the fame of our house. I entreat you, sir, not to fail to make the acquaintance of a gentleman I esteem most highly, who after the most illustrious successes as an undergraduate, which compare most favourably with my own poor efforts, has remained at the University, pursuing higher studies in the field of art. I shall address a letter of introduction to him on your behalf before your arrival at Cambridge, and I have no doubt that he will entertain you most hospitably. The gentleman's name is Mr Anthony Blunt, and I have hopes that he will, with your consent, introduce you to a certain society of gentlemen in the University with which I believe you will be well pleased and find worthy of your attendance. You will be pleased, sir, to greet him on your arrival and present to him the compliments of your most humble and devoted servant,

Sam Johnson

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