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 …

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