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An Edwardian Dropout

I was eleven. Between the ages of ten and fourteen a boy reaches a first maturity or wholeness as a person; it is broken up by adolescence and not remade until many years later. That eager period between ten and fourteen is the one in which one can learn anything. Even in the times when most children had no schooling at all, they could be experts in a trade: the children who went up chimneys, worked in cotton mills, pushed coster barrows may have been sick, exhausted, and ill-fed, but they were at a temporary height of their intelligence and powers. This is the delightful phase of boyhood, all curiosity, energy, and spirit.

I was ready for a decisive experience, if it came. It did come. My parents had always been on the move. We rarely stayed for more than a year in any district. I was pushed off to the village school in Sedbergh and to many primary schools in London. Some were pretty rough, one or two were slummy. The classes were very large, the discipline was severe, and the teaching mechanical. We sat chanting the multiplication table aloud, and went on to sing-songing lists of the rivers and capes of England. In history I never got beyond the Saxons and Danes and was stuck with unlikely kings, like Alfred the Great, Canute, and Ethelred the Unready, in confused chronology. The effect of nomadic education was to make me backward and usually older than anyone else in the class. But now the decisive experience came. We moved to Dulwich in the south of London. Once more I was sent to a state primary school, but this time although it was very “low” compared with the private and fee-paying schools, it was good. It was called Rosendale Road school. There I decided to become a writer. The decision did not drop out of the sky and was not the result of intellectual effort. It began in the classroom and was settled in the school lavatory. It came, of course, because of a personal influence: the influence of a schoolmaster called Bartlett.

There were and are good and bad elementary schools in London. They are nearly as much created by their districts and their children as by their teachers. The children at Rosendale Road, which was a large school, were a mixture of working class and lower middles with a few foreigners and colonials—Germans, Portuguese, Australians, French, and one or two Indians. It was a mixed school. We sat next to girls in class and the class was fifty or sixty strong. We had overgrown louts from Peabody’s Buildings and little titches; the sons of coalmen, teachers, railwaymen, factory workers, sailors, soldiers, draughtsmen, printers, policemen, shop assistants, and clerks and salesmen. The Germans were the children of people in the pharmaceutical trades; they had been better educated than we were and had more pocket money. One dark satanically handsome boy owned a “phonograph” and claimed to be a direct descendant of Sir Francis Drake and did romantic pictures of galleons. At fourteen the girls would leave school, work in offices, in factories like my father’s, or become waitresses or domestic servants.

In most schools such a crowd was kept in order by the cane. Girls got it as much as the boys and sniveled afterwards. To talk in class was a crime: to leave one’s desk inconceivable. Discipline was meant to encourage subservience, and to squash rebellion—very undesirable in children who would grow up to obey orders from their betters. No child here would enter the ruling classes unless he was very gifted and won scholarship after scholarship. A great many boys from these schools did so and did rise to high places; but they had to slave and crush part of their lives, to machine themselves so that they became brain alone. They ground away at their lessons, and, for all their boyhood and youth and perhaps all their lives, they were in the ingenious torture chamber of the examination halls. They were brilliant children, of course, but some when they grew up tended to be obsequious to the ruling class and ruthless to the rest, if they were not tired out. Among them were many who were emotionally infantile.

A REACTION against this fierce system of education had set in at the turn of the century. Socialism and the scientific revolution—which Wells has described—had moved many people. New private schools for the well-off were beginning to break with the traditions of the nineteenth century and a little of the happy influence seeped down to ourselves. Mr. Bartlett represented it. The Education Officer had instructed the headmaster to give Mr. Bartlett a free hand for a year or so and to introduce something like the Dalton or tutorial system into our class. The other teachers hated him and it; we either made so much noise that the rest of the school could hardly get on with their work, or were so silent that teachers would peep over the frosted glass of the door to see if we had gone off for a holiday.

Mr. Bartlett was a stumpy, heavy-shouldered young man with a broad swarthy face, large brown eyes, and a lock of black hair wagging romantically over his forehead. He looked like a boxer, lazy in his movements, and his right arm hung back as he walked to the blackboard as though he was going to swing a blow at it. He wore a loose tweed jacket with baggy pockets in which he stuck books, chalk, and pencils and, by some magnetism, he could silence a class almost without a word. He never used the cane. Since we could make as much noise as we liked, he got silence easily when he wanted it. Manners scarcely existed among us except as a scraping and sniveling; he introduced us to refinements we had never heard of and his one punishment took the form of an additional and excruciating lesson in this subject. He would make us write a formal letter of apology. We would make a dozen attempts before he was satisfied. And when, at last, we thought it was done he would point out that it was still incomplete. It must be put in an envelope, properly addressed: not to Mr. Bartlett, not to Mr. W. W. Bartlett, not, as I did, to Mr. W. W. Bartlett Esquire, but to the esquire without the mister. It often took us a whole day, and giving up all the pleasant lessons the rest were doing, to work out the phrasing of these letters of shame.

At Rosendale Road I said goodbye to Ethelred the Unready and the capes and rivers of England, the dreary sing-song. We were no longer foredoomed servants but found our freedom. Mr. Bartlett’s methods were spacious. A history lesson might go on for days; if it was about early Britain and old downland encampments he would bring us wild flowers from the Wiltshire tumuli. He set up his easel and his Whatman boards and painted pictures to illustrate his lesson. Sometimes he changed to pastels. And we could go out and watch him and talk about what he was doing. He made us illustrate our work and we were soon turning out “Bartletts” by the dozen. He set us tasks in threes or fours; we were allowed to talk to each other, to wander about for consultations: we acted short scenes from books at a sudden order.

For myself the lessons on literature and especially poetry were the revelation. No textbooks. Our first lessons were from Ford Madox Ford’s English Review which was publishing some of the best young writers of the time. We discussed Bridges and Masefield. Children who seemed stupid were suddenly able to detect a fine image or line and disentangle it from the ordinary. A sea poem of Davidson’s, a forgotten Georgian, remains in my mind to this day: the evocation of the sea rolling on the shingle on the coast between Romney and Hythe:

The beach with all its organ stops
Pealing again prolongs the roar

Bartlett was a good watercolor painter. He dug out one of James Russell Lowell’s poems, “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” though why he chose that dim poem, I do not know, we went on to Tennyson, never learning by heart. Bartlett must have been formed in the late days of pre-Raphaelitism, for he introduced us to a form of writing then called half-print. He scrapped the school pens, made us use broad nibs and turn out stories, as near to the medieval script as possible. (This and German script, four years later, ruined my handwriting forever.) We had a magazine and newspaper.

MANY OF BARTLETT’S methods are now commonplace in English schools; in 1911 they were revolutionary. For myself, the sugar-bag blue cover of the English Review was decisive. One had thought literature was in books written by dead people who had been oppressively over-educated. Here was writing by people who were alive and probably writing at this moment. The author was not remote; he was almost with us. He lived as we did; he was often poor. And there was another aspect. In Ipswich I had been drawn to painting and now in poems and stories I saw pictures growing out of the print. Bartlett’s picture of the Hispaniola lying beached in the Caribbean, on the clean swept sand, its poop, round house, mainsails, and foretops easily identified, had grown out of the flat printed words of Treasure Island. When we read Kidnapped he made us paint the Scottish moors. We laughed over Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The art of writing became a manual craft as attractive—to a boy—as the making of elderberry pipes or carpentering. My imagination woke up. I now saw my grandfather’s talk of Great Men in a new light. They were not a lot of dead Jehovahs far away; they were not even “Great”; they were men. I went up to a dirty secondhand book shop in Norwood, as often as I could cadge a penny off my mother, and out of the dusty boxes I bought paperbacks called The Penny Poets. One could have a complete edition of Paradise Regained (but not, for some reason, Paradise Lost), or Wordsworth’s Prelude, the Thanatopsis (but what on earth was that?) of William Cullen Bryant, the poems of Cowper and Coleridge. To encourage my mother to open her purse or to reward her with a present, I bought penny sheets of secondhand music for her. I was piqued by her laughter.

This old stuff,” she said, sitting down at the piano. “The Seventh Royal Fusiliers.”

The gallant Fusiliers, they march their way to glory,” I sang out.

You’re flat,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

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