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An Edwardian Dropout

Too many long words,” he said. And no more.

I was wretched. A gulf opened between myself and Coleridge.

To me, my Diana was a burst of genius. I have never had the sensation since.

I WENT HOME and sitting in our attic on a tin trunk, which I called my desk study, I finally gave up poetry for prose and started on my first novel. My father had sensibly given us the Children’s Encyclopaedia and in that I had found some more Washington Irving, simplified and abridged from his book about the legends of the Alhambra. The thought of that ethereal Moorish girl rising from the fountain entranced me. Here was a subject: the story of that girl who rises and is caught in the wars of the Moors and the Spaniards. There was more than a boyish interest in war in this choice of subject. Nasty wars were boiling up in Edwardian Europe. We had had an illustrated history of the Boer War at home; and in the illustrated papers there had been dramatic pictures of contemporary wars in Greece and the Balkans, pictures of destroyed and muddy towns and fleeing people. The Balkan wars seeped into my novel. When I was short of invention—I could never make the Moorish girl do anything except wave her languorous arms—I put in a battle scene, usually a tragic defeat, ending with my stock device: a lament by the Moorish women looking on the battlefield for their dead. Laments had an intimate appeal; my mother lamented often in those days. Day after day I wrote, until my novel reached about 130 pages, and I showed some of it to my friends.

How-‘ard. Is it Nott?” they said, tactfully advising me to cut out the laments. I kept the MS. from Ginger Reed. He was spiteful in these months. He always came top in arithmetic and was leaving school to become a van boy: stunted, he was older than the rest of us, we discovered. He was over fourteen and he jeered bitterly at us. We were rich, he said. We had opportunities, he jeered, as he ate his bread and dripping (his breakfast), and danced about us in the schoolyard.

Then two bad things happened and their effect was to poison my life and was lasting. It took me many years to recover from them. Father discovered I was reading The Gem and The Magnet. To think that a son of a Managing Director of a Limited Company which had just paid off its debentures, a son who was always putting on the airs of a Professor, and always full of Mr. Bartlett This and Mr. Bartlett That: who had been brought up in the shadow of his grandfather’s utterances about John Ruskin and possibly even deceived himself that he was John Ruskin, should bring such muck into the house.

WE WERE SITTING at tea. It was Sunday. The family looked at the criminal and not without pleasure. I had tried to force books on them. I had cornered them and made them listen to my poem and my novel. I had read Thanatopsis at them. I had made them play school, which they hated. I had hit out at the words Dirty Poet and had allowed no one near the tin trunk and, in fact, had put an onion in a jar of water on it, as a piece of Nature Study, to mark the intellectual claims of the spot. Naturally they couldn’t help being a little pleased. My mother, always capricious, liable to treachery and perhaps glad not to be the center of a quarrel herself for once, betrayed me also.

He reads them all day. Dozens of them. Dirty things.”

Where are they? Bring them down,” said my father. I went upstairs and came back with about twenty or thirty grubby Gems and Magnets.

Good godfathers,” said my father, not touching the pile, for he hated dust and dirt. “I give you your Saturday penny and this is what you’re doing with it. Wasting the money I earn. I suppose you think you’re so superior because you have a father who has his own business and you spend right and left on muck like this.”

I borrowed them. A boy lent them to me.”

A man is known by the company he keeps,” said my father. And getting up, his face greenish with disgust, he threw the lot in the fireplace and set fire to them.

Walt, Walt, you’ll have the soot down,” screamed my mother. “You know we haven’t had the sweep.”

But father liked a blaze. What could I say to Howard and Nott?

Why do you read that muck when you could be reading John Ruskin?”

We haven’t got any of Ruskin’s books.”

He writes poetry. He wants to be a poet,” said my brother Cyril.

He’s writing a book, all over the table instead of his homework,” said my mother.

No. Upstairs.”

Don’t contradict your mother. What’s this? So you are writing a book? I hope it will improve us. What is it? Where is it?”

Upstairs,” the traitors chimed. “Shall we go and get it?”

No,” I shouted.

Go and get it.”

Oh, if he doesn’t want us to see it…” my mother began.

I suppose a boy would want his own father to see it,” said my father. Anger put me on the point of tears. Very easily I cried when father reprimanded me.

I brought the manuscript and gave it to my father.

The Alhambra—remember we used to go to the Alhambra, Beat?” he said.

It’s the Alhambra in Spain,” I said scornfully.

Oh, superior!” said my father. “Let’s have a look at it.”

And, to my misery, he began reading aloud. He had scarcely read ten lines before he came across the following line:

She adjusted her robe with ostentatious care. She omited to wear a cloak.”

Ostentatious,” exclaimed my father. “That’s a big word—what does it mean?”

I don’t know,” I sulked.

You wrote a word and you don’t know what it means?”

It means sort of proud, showing off…” I could not go on. The tears broke out and I sobbed helplessly. I had got the word from Marie Corelli.

Ostentatious,” said my father. “I never heard of it. And what’s this? ‘Omited.’ I thought they taught you to spell.”

Omitted,” I sobbed.

Don’t bully the boy.” said my mother. I tried to rescue myself in the Howard-Nott manner.

O mite I have done better,” I blubbered.

O-mite, omit—it’s a pun,” I said and sent up a howl.

I took my novel back. I put it inside the tin trunk. Blackened by hatred, I did not touch it again. I hated my father. And one morning in the winter the hatred became intense or rather I decided I could never talk to him again about what went on in my mind.

It was an early morning of London fog. The room was dark and we had lit the gas. I was reading Shakespeare in bed. I had by now reached Measure for Measure when my father came in.

Get out of bed you lazy hound,” he said. “What are you reading?” He took the book and started reading himself and was perhaps startled by Claudio’s proposal.

Poetry,” he said. Then very seriously and quietly said:

Do you really want to be a poet?”

Yes I do.”

He went red with temper.

If that’s what you want,” he shouted, “I have nothing more to say to you. I won’t allow it. Get that idea out of your head at once.”

Why my father raged against my literary tastes I never really knew. He had been very poor, of course, and really feared I would “starve in a garret.” He wanted—in fancy only—to found a dynasty in business; and he heard no word of money in writing poetry. At this time he had many anxieties and the family; from my mother down, exasperated and tormented him. He was a perfectionist. He was also an egotist who had identified himself—as indeed I was doing—with an ideal state of things. And then there comes a time when a man of strong vitality finds it hard to bear the physical sight of his growing sons. He found it harder and harder; and he was to be even more severe with my brothers and my sister, especially the older of the three who adored him. We were at the beginning of a very long war; these were the first rumblings. One by one, we fell into secrecy. In self-preservation we told him lies.

He was behaving exactly to us as his own father had behaved to him; there was a strain of gritty, north country contempt and sarcasm in all of us.

DOWN AT ROSENDALE ROAD WE talked of football, “Jocks,” and sex. “Jocks” were members of a small secret society who talked in a peculiar baby language they had invented or picked up from one of the Comics. I longed to be a Jock but was shut out. The anti-Bartlett campaign succeeded: the progressive movement was defeated and we were moved en bloc to a more conventional class, even more crowded. Mr. Williams, the geography master, taught the geography of India and told me I was Welsh: my name derived from ApRichard. I denied that I was Welsh. Boys who had lovingly called me Pritch, Prick, or even Shit, now called me Taffy and sang out Taffy was a Welshman. Taffy was a thief. There was an effusive Cockney music master, all road and spit, who taught us to sing a song of Pope’s. He sang out the words:

Where e’er you walk
Cool Giles shall fan the glide

in a fine voice. I at once took to reading Pope’s Essay on Man during algebra.

The worst thing was that our new teacher was a woman. All the boys in the class hated her. Her figure was ridiculously beautiful, going in and out from bosom to waist and hips like a bottle; to walk behind her and see her lovely bottom sway made us giggle. One of the masters, a gingery hairy curly fellow like a barber was courting her. We esteemed that she was “hot” and that he “had it up” with her. I felt the desire to kick her. This woman had a high-class voice and finished herself for me by telling us that Bartlett was an out of date Impressionist in painting. I did a picture of Tower Bridge and she told me it was a mess. I told her I was not trying to put in every brick but that I was trying to get the “effect” of the bridge, not a copy. What, she asked, exactly did I mean by “effect”? “Well ‘effect,’ “I said. “You have been badly taught,” she said.

Volume” and “shading” were what we had to aim for. Imagine: a whole hour drawing a pudding basin in pencil and then shading it. But Dexter, the draughtsman’s son who sat next to me in this class, told me his father said she was right and that Bartlett was a slapdash old fool. A painting I had done of a Yorkshire moor in a storm was removed from the place of honor on the wall.

Holidays were getting near. The teacher said they were an opportunity to see unusual things. She would give a prize to the value of five shillings to the child who brought back a drawing of the most unusual thing he had seen. Five shillings! But how, since we never went away for holidays, would we see anything unusual? Five shillings—the books one could buy for that! I was nearly mad with determination to get it. I had a brilliant idea which I am afraid exposes the dirty cunning, the “deediness” as mother called it—and flightiness of my priggish character. I decided that museums were a store of unusual things. I dragged my brother and sister for a couple of miles across Dulwich Park because I had to look after the children—stopped them from playing on the way, with bribes of ginger beer, and got to Horniman’s Museum. Oh sacred and blessed spot, oh temple of knowledge, oh secret Bore, I dragged the kids round the cases. Mr. Bartlett had been keen on stone arrowheads and flints, Uncle Arthur had gone in for fossils and quartz—I had bought a book on geology and had tried to memorize the names of rocks: the craze lasted a week or two—but what was unusual about them? And, in any case, how difficult for an “effect” artist like myself to draw things like these. I searched for something foreign, exotic, and simple. I found it. There was a collection of amulets from India. Quickly I drew the childishly simple shapes and noted the colors. I took the other children back home, got out my paints and did a full page of amulets, inventing some extra ones as I went along. Some I called Indian; at a venture, I lied and called some African. The whole swindle in yellows and purples looked pretty and salable.

My culture-snobbery and faking were successful. Most of the boys and girls in my class had forgotten to go in for the prize. Howard had spent his time selling newspapers; Nott had been to Somerset and had seen stalactites in caves but could not draw. Those self-indulgent rivals had been caught napping. They were not obsessional boys. I won the prize, the only one of my school life.

And what would you like for your five shillings?” the teacher said.

A book.”

That’s good. Which book would you like? Henty? Conan Doyle?”

No, Ruskin.”

What?” said the teacher. “He wrote a great many books.” I did not know the titles of any of Ruskin’s books.

Any one. Some.”

You realize he was a social reformer and art critic?”

On art,” I said blindly, sucking up to her love of volume and shading.

The woman with the ludicrously beautiful figure, whom we mocked and whom I had wanted to kick, presented me a few weeks later with eight volumes of Ruskin—Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice and—most enlightening of all—an Index. I had blotted out the Gem and Magnet fiasco.

I went home and opened the first volume of Modern Painters. The title startled me. This surely could not have been the writer Grandfather admired. It contained nothing about social justice. I was faced by an utterly strange subject: art and the criticism of art. I had admired pictures for their silence and their peace, even their self-satisfaction as images. They were not—it now seemed—at peace at all. I struggled to understand the unusual words and nearly gave up; but I was kept going by Ruskin’s bad temper, his rage against Claude and Poussin—whoever they might be—and his exaltation of Turner. He was in a passion. Until now I had never been inside Dulwich Gallery, but now I went. And there I stood in those empty polished rooms that sometimes smelled of the oil paint of a copyist who had left his picture on its easel, in Ruskin’s world. Here were the Dutch, the Italians. Here was Rubens. Here was Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse. I was happier than I had been in my life, but I was also oppressed. It was the old story, I was self-burdened. There was too much to know. I discovered that Ruskin was not so very many years older than I was when he wrote that book.

It took me a year to get through the first volume of Modern Painters. The second I skipped. The third bored me until I got to the chapter on the Pathetic Fallacy. This I read easily: in the conflict between painting and literature, literature always conquered. I was shocked to see Pope attacked. I was shamed to see that I was on the side of the Pathetic Fallacy. I had not realized that there was unrest in literature, too, and that one was allowed to attack “the great.” Seeing that Homer was praised I bought Chapman’s Homer from the secondhand box. How could Keats have been bowled over by it? Why no “wild surmise” for me? All the great poets have praised the Iliad. I was bored by it. Slowly Coleridge and Wordsworth drifted away into regions that were, evidently, unattainable.

THERE WAS presently talk at home of my sitting for a scholarship for a place at the Strand School, a State secondary school at Streatham. (Many a time I had walked over to Streatham Common in the belief that it was an approach to the Sussex Downs where Mr. Bartlett had found coltsfoot. There were only dandelions on Streatham Common.) Miss H.—as we called her—my father’s partner, a woman had been nagging my father about scholarships; and because of the Ruskin “prize” he was impressed and I was in a state of euphoric self-confidence.

Soon, father and I were on a bus going to Streatham. I was going to sit for the examination. I was impressed by being at a school where there was a dining hall and where boys could buy buns, chocolate, and drink cocoa in the break. They also wore long trousers. There was a touch of Greyfriars in this. I was sick with fright and had had diarrhea, of course, but I felt I could rely on my genius. But when I sat down to the examination papers I found that my genius was not being called upon. The effect of Mr. Bartlett’s system was that I was totally unprepared and ignorant—even in English. I could answer scarcely any of the questions and I could hope only to get by in Scripture. There was a question about Noah and the Ark; something about the numbers of people aboard, size and location of the ark, the duration of the flood, and how many times the dove flew in and out and with what in its beak? I had inherited my father’s dislike of a fact. I ignored the question and wrote at full speed a dramatic eyewitness account of the Flood, ending with that favorite device—a Lament. I made the drowning millions lament. A month later I heard the inevitable news: the genius, the inhabitant of a higher plane, had failed to win a scholarship.

I did not know how to bear the shame of this. It was made worse by hearing that I was older than all the other boys who were sitting. I could never sit again. I found it hard to face my brother. He who hated school, and except in carpentry always did badly—Cyril welcomed me to the brotherhood of failures.

Failure to win a scholarship was a blow to vanity and to hopes. For me it would be decisive. In those puzzled hours at the desk my future was settled. How often my grandfather and my father had urged me on with the joke, “Victor—always victorious.” I wasn’t and I began to be cowed by my morally pretentious Christian name and to hate it. I was never good at examinations and was never near the top of the class in spite of all my efforts. In English I was always near the bottom of the list. My memory was poor. Mr. Bartlett had scorned to teach English Grammar and I knew nothing of it until I learned French and German. I was bad at spelling and had—I have still—a bad handwriting. The most serious result of this failure was that it was now certain—although I did not realize this—that I would never go to the University. If I had passed I would have stayed at school until I was eighteen and would surely have got another scholarship to London University; probably I would have become a teacher or an academic. I had had a narrow escape. But I would have had friends whom I would have met again and again in life and, in university days, they would have helped as much as my tutors to put some order and direction to a drifting and chaotic mind.

This is the last of three selections from V. S. Pritchett’s memoirs, A Cab at the Door.

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