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?”
I had found a collection of the worst patriotic songs of the Crimean War, full of soldierly pathos. The music sheets were very dirty and they smelled of hair oil, tea, and stale rooms.
That I understood very little of what I read did not really matter to me. (Washington Irving’s Life of Columbus was as awful as the dictionary because of the long words.) I was caught by the passion for print as an alcoholic is caught by the bottle. There was a small case of books at home, usually kept in the backroom, which was called my father’s study. Why he had to have a study we could not see. There was an armchair, a gate-legged table, a small rug, piles of business magazines usually left in their wrappers; the floor boards were still bare as indeed were our stairs; father had temporarily suppressed his weakness for buying on credit. I had not dared often to look much at his books. It is true I had read Marriage on Two Hundred a Year, because after all the quarrels in our house, marriage was a subject on which I had special knowledge. From the age of seven I often offered my parents bits of advice on how to live. I knew what the rent was and what housekeeping cost. I had also read Paper Bag Cookery—one of father’s fads—because I wanted to try it. Now I saw The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in leather: it defeated me. Wordsworth and Milton at least wrote in short lines with wide margins. I moved on to a book by Hall Caine called The Bondman. It appeared to be about a marriage and I noticed that the men and women talked in the dangerous adult language which I associated with The Bad Girl of the Family. The Bondman also suggested a doom—the sort of doom my mother sang about which was connected with Trinity Church and owing the rent.
Hall Caine was too thundery for me. I moved to Marie Corelli and there I found a book of newspaper articles called Free Opinions. The type was large. The words were easy, rather contemptibly so. I read and then stopped in anger. Marie Corelli had insulted me. She was against popular education, against schools, against Public Libraries, and said that common people like us made the books dirty because we never washed, and that we infected them with disease. I had never been inside a Public Library but I now decided to go to one. Mr. Bartlett had advised us to get notebooks to write down any thoughts we had about what we read. I got out mine and I wrote my first lines of English prose: hard thoughts about Marie Corelli.
This exhausted me and the rest of the notebook was slowly filled with copied extracts from my authors. I had a look at In Tune with the Infinite. I moved on to my father’s single volume, India Paper edition, of Shakespeare’s Complete Works and started at the beginning with the Rape of Lucrece and the sonnets and continued slowly through the plays during the coming year. For relief I took up Marie Corelli’s Master Christian which I found more moving than Shakespeare and more intelligible than Thanatopsis.
On the lowest shelf of my father’s bookcase were several new ornate and large volumes of a series called The International Library of Famous Literature. They were bound in red and had gold lettering. They had never been opened and we were forbidden to touch them. I think father must have had the job of selling the series, on commission, at one time, I started to look at them. There were photographs of busts of Sophocles and Shakespeare. There were photographs of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, of Sir James Barrie and Sir Edmund Gosse in deep, starched wing collars, of Kipling rooting like a dog at his desk and of G.K. Chesterton with his walking stick. There was Tolstoy behind his beard. The volumes contained long extracts from the works of these writers. I found at once a chapter from Hardy’s Under a Greenwood Tree; and discovered a lasting taste for the wry and ironical. I moved on to Longinus’s Of the Sublime and could not understand it. I was gripped by Tolstoy and a chapter from Don Quixote. In the next two or three years I read the whole of The International Library, on the quiet. These volumes converted me to prose. I had never really enjoyed poetry for it was concerned with inner experience and I was very much an extrovert and I fancy I have remained so; the moodiness and melancholy which fell on me in Dulwich and have been with me ever since, must have come from the disappointments of an active and romantic nature; the forms of Protestantism among which I was brought up taught one to think of life rigidly in terms of right and wrong and that is not likely to fertilize the sensibilities or the poetic imagination. The poet, above all, abandons the will; people like ourselves who were nearly all will burned up the inner life, had no sense of its daring serenity, and were either rapt by our active dramas or tormented by them; but in prose I found the common experience and the solid worlds where judgments were made and in which one could firmly tread.
An extract from Oliver Twist made me ask for a copy for Christmas. I put it in our one green armchair and knelt there reading it in a state of hot terror. It seized me because it was about London and the fears of the London streets. There were big boys at school who could grow up to be the Artful Dodger; many of us could have been Oliver; but the decisive thing must have been that Dickens had the excited mind, the terrors, the comic sense of a boy and one who can never have grown emotionally older than a boy is at the age of ten. One saw people going about the streets of London who could have been any of his characters; and right and wrong were meat to him. In all of Dickens, as I went on from book to book, I saw myself and my life in London. In Thackeray I found the gentler life of better-off people and the irony I now loved. To have been the young man in The Virginians, to have traveled as he did and to find oneself among affectionate, genial, and cultivated families who enjoyed their fortunes, instead of struggling for them, must be heaven. And I had seen enough in our family to be on the way to acquiring a taste for disillusion.
My mother’s tales about her childhood made the world seem like a novel to me, and with her I looked back and rather feared or despised the present. The present was a chaos and a dissipation, and it was humiliating to see that the boys who lived for the minute and for the latest craze or adventure were the most intelligent and clear-headed. Their families were not claustrophobic, the sons were not prigs, as I was. There was a boy with a Japanese look to him—he had eyes like apple pips—who had introduced me to Wells’s Time Machine. He went a step further and offered me his greatest treasures: dozens of tattered numbers of those famous stories of school life, The Gem and The Magnet. The crude illustrations, the dirty condition of the papers, indicated that they were pulp and sin. One page and I was entranced. I gobbled these stories as if I were eating pie or stuffing. To hell with poor self-pitying fellows like Oliver Twist; here were the cheerful rich. I craved for Greyfriars, that absurd Public School, as I craved for pudding. There the boys wore top hats and tail coats—Arthur Augustus D’Arcy, the toff, wore a monocle—they had feasts in their “studies”; they sent a pie containing a boot to the bounder of the Remove; they rioted; they never did a stroke of work. They “strolled” round “the Quad” and rich uncles tipped them a “fivah,” which they spent on more food. Sometimes a shady foreign language master was seen to be in touch with a German spy. Very rarely did a girl appear in these tales.
The Japanese-looking boy was called Nott. He had a friend called Howard, the son of a compositor. The Gem and The Magnet united us. We called ourselves by Greyfriars names and jumped about shouting words like “Garoo.” We punned on our names. When anything went wrong we said, in chorus:
“How-‘ard! Is it Nott?”
—and doubled with laughter dozens of times a day as we “strolled” arm in arm on the way home from school.
I knew this reading was sin and I counteracted it by reading a short life of the poet Wordsworth. There was a rustic summer house at the end of our back garden. It had stained glass windows. Driving my brothers and sister out, I claimed it as my retreat and cell. When they kicked up too much noise I sat up on the thatched roof of the house from which, when life at Grasmere bored me. I had a good view of what other boys were doing in their gardens. I forgot about prose and said I was going to be a poet and “Dirty Poet” became the family name for me. Sedbergh is not far from the Lake Country: destiny pointed to my connection with Wordsworth. We had a common experience of Lakes and Fells. His lyrical poems seemed too simple and girlish to me: I saw myself writing a new Prelude or Excursion. Also the line “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers” struck home at our family, for my parents quarreled continually about money. I read that Wordsworth had been Poet Laureate: this was the ideal. To my usual nightly prayers that the house should not catch fire and that no burglar should break in, I added a line urging God to make me Poet Laureate “before I am twenty-one.” This prayer lasted until I was sixteen.
One day Mr. Bartlett made this possibility seem nearer. He got us to put together a literary magazine. Nott and Howard efficiently produced a pair of thrillers, one set among the opium dens of Hong Kong. I got to work on a long poem. Finding—to my surprise—that Wordsworth was not a stirring model, I moved to Coleridge’s Cristabel. My first line thrilled me. It ran: “Diana, goddess of the spectre moon.” I turned in fifty or sixty lines of coagulated romantic imagery in this manner and waited for the startled applause, especially from Mr. Bartlett. There was silence. There was embarrassment. Nott and Howard were stunned by the poem. Ginger Reed, a little red-haired Cockney flea, skinny, ill, and lively, who skipped around cheeking me in the streets and clattering the hobnails of his brother’s boots that were too heavy for his thin legs—Ginger Reed tore the poem to bits line by line: why call a “bird” Diana? Why “spectre”—was the “bird” dead? Metaphor and simile, I said. Stale, he said. I was very small, but he was smaller and people in Herne Hill might have been surprised to know that one urchin pestering another at a street corner were on the point of fighting about a poem, while a pale child with owlish glasses called Donald stood there as a kind of doleful referee. The thing to do was to wait for Bartlett, but he would not speak. At last I was driven to ask his opinion as he walked in the school yard.
“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.
“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.
“That’s good. Which book would you like? Henty? Conan Doyle?”
“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.
December 21, 1967