Read To You, Mr Chips Online

Authors: James Hilton

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Juvenile Fiction, #England, #Europe, #Large type books, #Boys, #Teachers, #People & Places, #Endowed Public Schools (Great Britain), #School & Education

To You, Mr Chips (3 page)

BOOK: To You, Mr Chips
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When later I was called up for military service I responded, chiefly because my friends were in the army and I guessed I should be happier with them there than on committees of anti-war societies with people whose views I mainly held. If this seems an illogical reason, I shall agree, with the proviso that it is also a more civilised reason than a desire to kill Germans.

I did not conceal my views about the War, but I did conceal my general feeling about games. I was, in this respect, a complete hypocrite. I have never been able to take the slightest interest in most games, partly because I am no good at them myself; I like outdoor pursuits such as walking, sea-bathing, and mountaineering, but the competitive excitements of cup-finals and test matches bore me to exasperation. The only contest even remotely athletic into which I ever entered with zest was the saying of the Latin grace at my Cambridge college; it was a long grace, and I was told (how accurately I cannot say) that I lowered the all-time speed record from sixteen to fourteen and a fifth seconds. At Brookfield, however, grace was said by the masters, so that my prowess in this field remained unsuspected, even by myself. The craze for clipping fifths of seconds raged elsewhere. Most of my friends were tremendously concerned about 'the hundred yards' and the various School and House matches, and I would not for the world have let them know that I cared nothing about such things at all. Sometimes, if there was absolutely no one else left to fill the team, I took part in some very junior housematch, and I always hoped that my side would lose, because then I should not have to play in any subsequent game. Outwardly, however, I pretended to share all the normal enthusiasms over victory and despairs over defeat; and I think I carried it off pretty well. There is always some ultimate thing you must do when you are in Rome, even if the Romans are exceptionally broad-minded.

I never received corporal punishment at Brookfield; I was never bullied; I never had a fight with anybody; and the only trouble I got into was for breaking bounds. I used to enjoy lazy afternoons at the Orchard, Grantchester, with strawberries and cream for tea; I liked to attend Evensong at King's College Chapel; I liked to smoke cigarettes in cafés. Most of these diversions were against school rules, and I have an idea that often when I was seen breaking them, the observer tactfully closed an eye. Perhaps it was realised that my desire for personal freedom did not incline me to foment general rebellion. Many things that I care about do not attract others at all, and awareness of this has always made me reluctant to exalt my own particular cravings into the dimensions of a crusade. On the whole, I thought the school discipline reasonable, if occasionally irksome, and when I transgressed I did so without either resentment or regret.

Strangely, perhaps, since I was not 'the type,' I was quite happy at Brookfield. The very things I disliked (games, for instance) brightened some days by darkening others; I have rarely been so happy in my life as when, taking a hot bath after a football game in which I hardly touched the ball, I reflected that no one would compel me to indulge in such preposterous pseudo-activity for another forty-eight hours. I had many acquaintances, and a few close friends with whom my relationship was as unselfish as any I have experienced since in my life. I do not think I had any particular enemies, and I got on well enough with authority. Despite the sexual aberrations that are supposed to thrive at boarding-schools, I never succumbed to any, nor was I ever tempted. I played the piano dashingly rather than accurately at speech-day concerts, breakfasted with the Head once a term, argued for or against capital punishment (I forget which) in the school debating society, and cycled many windy miles along the fenland lanes.

The magic of youth is in the sudden unfolding of vistas, the lifting of mists from the mile-high territory of manhood. It sometimes falls to me nowadays to read a fine new book by a new writer, but never to discover a whole shelf of new books at once--as happened after I had first read 
 New worlds are for the young to explore; later one is glad of a new room or even of a view from a new window. That the worlds were not seen in proper focus, while the room or the view may be, does not entirely compensate for the slowing of excitement--for the loss of a mood in which one hid 
The New Machiavelli
 inside the chapel hymn-book, or read 
Major Barbara
 by flashlight under the bedclothes. To such ecstasies youth could add a passionate awareness of being alive, and--during the years 1914-1918--being alive by a miracle.

Looking back on those days I see that they had an epic quality, and that, after all, the school experiences of my generation were unique. Behind the murmur of genitive plurals in dusty classrooms and the plick-plock of cricket balls in the summer sunshine, there was always the rumble of guns, the guns that were destroying the world that Brookfield had made and that had made Brookfield. Sometimes these guns were actually audible, or we fancied they were; every weekday there was a rush to the newspapers, every Sunday a batch of names read out to stilled listeners. The careful assessments of schoolmasters were blotted out by larger and wilder markings; a boy who had been expelled returned as a hero with medals; those whose inability to conjugate 
 seemed likely in 1913 to imperil a career were to conquer France's enemies better than they did her language; offenders gated for cigarette-smoking in January were dropping bombs from the sky in December. It was a frantic world; and we knew it even if we did not talk about it. Slowly, inch by inch, the tide of war lapped to the gates of our seclusion; playing-fields were ploughed up for trenches and drill-grounds; cadet-corps duties took precedence over classroom studies; the school that had prepared so many beloved generations for life was preparing this one, equally beloved, for death.

When I said just now that I disliked military training and had no aptitude for it, I was putting the matter mildly. I dislike regimentation of any kind, and I loathe war, not only for its enthronement of the second-rate--in men, standards, and ideals. In the declension of spirit in which England fought, it is correct to say that we began with Rupert Brooke and ended with Horatio Bottomley. But at Brookfield the loftier mood prevailed even when it was no more than a cellophane illusion separating us from the visible darkness without.

On Sundays we attended Chapel and heard sermons that, as often as not, preached brotherly love and forgiveness of our enemies. On Mondays we watched cadets on the football-field bayoneting sacks with special aim for vital parts of the human body. This paradox did not, I am sure, affect most Brookfield boys as it did me. To be frank, it obsessed me; I would wonder endlessly whether Sunday's or Monday's behaviour were the more hypocritical. I have changed my attitude since. That Brookfield declined to rationalise warfare into its code of ethics while at the same time sending its sons to fight and die, seems to me now to have been pardonably illogical and creditably inconsistent; looking round on the present-day world of 1938, I can see that countries where high ideals are preached but not practised are at least better off than countries in which low ideals are both preached 

Many of us at Brookfield, like myself, were too young--
 too young--to see actual service in the War; yet during our last school years we lived under the shadow, for we knew or took for granted that if the War lasted we should be illogical and inconsistent in the same English way. Such tragic imminence hardly worried us, but it gave a certain sharpness to all the joys and a certain comfort for all the trivial hardships of school-life--gave also, in my own case, the clearest focus for memory. There is hardly a big event of those years that I do not associate with a Brookfield scene; Kitchener's death reminds me of cricketers hearing the news as they fastened pads in the pavilion; the Russian Revolution gives me the voice of a man, now dead, who talked about it instead of giving his usual geography lesson; the 
 sinking reminds me of early headlines, read hastily over a master's shoulder at breakfast. I composed a sonnet on the Russian Revolution, which my father had the temerity to send to Mr. A. G. Gardiner, eliciting from him the comment that it 'showed merit.' I also wrote a poem on the 
 which appeared in the 
Cambridge Magazine,
 a pacifist weekly run by Mr. C. K. Ogden, who has since distinguished himself by the invention of Basic English. These things I recount, not for vainglory (for they were not particularly good poems), but to reveal something of the mood of Brookfield, in which a boy could be eccentric enough to write poetry and subversive enough to write pacifist and revolutionary poetry without being either persecuted or ostracised. As a matter of fact, I was editor of the school magazine, and wrote for it articles, stories, and poems of all kinds and in all moods. Nobody tried to censor them; nobody tried to depose or harass me. Looking back on this genial indifference, it seems to me that Brookfield in wartime was not only less barbarian than the world outside it, but also less barbarian than many institutions in what we have since chosen to call peacetime. Is there a school in Soviet Russia where a student may offer even the mildest printed criticism of Stalin? Is there a debating society throughout all Nazi Germany that would dare to allow a Socialist to defend his faith? I suspect that nowadays the boys of Brookfield, members predominantly of the despised bourgeois capitalist class, are nevertheless free to be Marxian or Mosleyite if they like, and no doubt a few of them are writing wild stuff which in twenty years' time they will either forget or regret. Let us hope, however, that they will not forget the spirit of tolerance which today is in such grave peril because it is in the very nature of tolerance to take tolerance for granted.

I do not know whether this spirit obtained at other schools besides Brookfield. Probably at some it did and at others it didn't. But I stress it because the quality of any institution can be tested by the extent to which it withstands attack without compromising too much with the attacker. Granted that during the War all civilised institutions were subtly contaminated, which of them passed such a test most creditably? Perhaps we can say that England as a whole, though suffering vast changes, has survived more recognisably than any other country. She is more than the ghost of her former self--she has a good deal still left of the substance. Alone among the countries that participated substantially in the War, her national life is still reasonably well anchored. Mr. Chips, if he were alive (and I have reason to believe he is, in a few schools), could still give the same lessons as in 1908 (not an ideal educational programme, but one that at least attests the durability of a tradition), could still make the same jokes to a new generation that still understands them, could still offer himself in the kindly role of jester, critic, mentor, and friend. No upstart authority has yet compelled him to click his heels and begin the day with juju incantations of 
 He can still say, without fear of rubber truncheons: 'Umph . . . Mr. Neville Chamberlain . . . umph . . . I used to know his father when he was the wild man of Born--I mean Birmingham . . . but his sons have turned--umph--respectable. . . .'

This spirit of free criticism, even if it expresses itself no more momentously than as a classroom squib, is the sort of thing that makes English Conservatives liberal and keeps English Socialists conservative. It is the spirit that made Baldwin protest against Fascist brutality at the Albert Hall, that gives Citrine misgivings about Russia, and that united ninety per cent of Englishmen in fervent if soon-forgotten admiration of Dimitrov. It is the spirit that made Mr. Chips protest amidst the bomb explosions: 'These things that have mattered for a thousand years are not going to be snuffed out because some stink-merchant invents a new kind of mischief.'

Unfortunately, it looks as if they 
 going to be snuffed out. Mr. Chips was too valiant an optimist to face the tragic impasse of the twentieth century--the fact that civilisation, because in its higher manifestations it is essentially organised for peace, cannot long survive war--even a war supposedly undertaken on its behalf. There can be no war to end wars, because all wars begin other wars. There can be no such thing as a war to save democracy, because all wars destroy democracy. There could have been a peace to save what was left of democracy, but the chance of that came and went in 1919--the saddest year in all the martyrdom of man.

Here the reader may protest that much of the above arguments depends on the assumption that England and our institutions deserve to survive. There was a time when I would not by any means have taken this for granted. It was possible, then, to feel that the pre-War world, having encouraged or permitted a system that led to catastrophe, might as well be destroyed completely to make way for newer and better things. (It was possible, then, to say 'newer and better' as glibly as one says 'spick and span.') It was possible, then, to decry the public schools as the bulwark of a system that had had its day, to attack them for their creation of a class snobbery, to lampoon their play-the-game fetish and their sedate philistinism. That these attacks were partly justified one may as well admit. The public schools 
 create snobbery, or at any rate the illusion of superiority; you cannot train a ruling class without such an illusion. My point is that the English illusion has proved, on the whole, humaner and more endurable, even by its victims, than the current European illusions that are challenging and supplanting it; that the public-school Englishmen who flock to a Noel Coward revue to join in laughs against themselves are patterned better than the polychromed shirtwearers of the Continent who not only cannot laugh but dare not allow laughter. Granted that the long afternoon of English imperialism is over, that dusk is falling on a dominion wider if less solid than Rome's. Granted that the world is tired of us and our solar topees and our faded kip-lingerie, that it will not raise a finger to save us from eclipse. Time will bring regrets, if any. For myself, I do not object to being called a sentimentalist because I acknowledge the passing of a great age with something warmer than a sneer.

BOOK: To You, Mr Chips
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