The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

4. To take the lead

Non è cosa più difficile a trattare, né più dubbia a riuscire, né più pericolosa a maneggiare, che farsi capo ad introdurre nuovi ordini.

There is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success, or more perilous to handle, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things.

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

On returning home from Otterburn, we were off again almost immediately with Mum and Dad on their annual spree to a classical site. This year it was Ephesus, where Andrew and I did the local antiquities but passed much of the time lazing in the sun. We felt in need of recuperation, and my hip was still not a hundred per cent. Once back in Oxford, refreshed, we spent the last week of the holidays catching up, Andrew with work which he had had to skimp last term, me with thinking about the Crusade which more urgent matters had also pushed on to the back burner.

One minor matter on my mind (or was it so minor?) was how we addressed each other in the house. The code of practice was fairly complex and rigid. Wally called us by our first name in the house, by our surname in the school, but never (if we had one) by our nickname. Boys used first names or nicknames with boys who were up to a year above or below them, but surnames with those who were higher or lower. Woe betide anyone under seventeen, for example, rash enough to call Spud anything but Mayhew.

It was all part of the hierarchical system which I was pledged to break, and it seemed divisive and unfriendly. When trying to comfort Bob Freshwater last term, for instance, I had felt guilty at not being sure what his first name was. From the school list I now swotted up the first names of everyone in the house.

Three days before the end of the Easter holiday, the phone rang and I answered it. To my surprise it was Wally, who asked if Andrew was available too. I hollered to him to go to the extension.

“I’ve got some news for you,” said Wally when Andrew was in place. “Rex is out of commission. Apparently he took his driving test a few days ago, and the moment he was on the road by himself he wrapped his car round a tree. He’s broken quite a number of bones and he won’t be coming back.”

I knew what was in Andrew’s mind. While not exactly rejoicing over Rex’s downfall, he would have worked out that the balance was now four to three in our favour.

And Wally had not finished. “Who can you think of as a replacement?”

We did not have to consult. “Jim, sir.”

Wally chuckled. “I thought you’d say that. And I agree.” Hah! Five to three!

“I hope the others will agree too, sir. They’re not exactly, um, bosom friends of his.”

“I don’t intend to ask them. I’ll tell them. Again. And I think the benefit of Jim’s presence will compensate for any, ah, extra cracks in the fellowship, don’t you?”

“If you’re going to phone Jim, sir, tell him that Rex has gone. He might be reluctant otherwise. And sir. Could you put Jim above John and Bryn? It’ll make no practical difference, but it would boost his self-esteem.”

The beginning of term was interesting.

At the pollies’ table for tea on the first night there were only the five survivors from last term. The three new ones sat with the rest of the house, for they were not installed, or even their names announced, until the little ceremony after prayers. That was rather silly, I thought. Much better if they took office at the end of the previous term. But installed they duly were, to greater applause than usual. The house had no difficulty in reading political allegiances and in doing simple arithmetic. Spud & Co welcomed them with barely-disguised ill grace.

Andrew and I had a quick and private word with our new colleagues, explaining our attitude to fagging, discipline, and co-existence with the regime. They had a pretty good idea already, but it needed to be spelled out.

“But you’re free agents,” I ended. “We’re not laying down any law. Take whatever line you think best.”

“No, we’re with you, Leon. We’ll follow your line.”

“Great. Thanks. I fancy Spud and Dave and Victor will carry on as before, though they’ll be more wary now. And don’t forget, Spud is still house captain.”

Indeed the very next day Spud called a meeting of all eight of us to say precisely that. He was clearly shaken by Rex’s departure and his own party’s minority status, but he put a brave face on it. He was still house captain, he starkly pointed out, and would continue to run the house his way. He implied that last term’s contretemps had been nobody’s fault but Simon’s, and that his troops’ morale was as high as ever. But at the same time he treated Andrew and me with more respect than usual. Andrew, after all, was now an under-officer, so the boy must have some stuffing in him. And it seemed that my firm if melodramatic interruption of the bimming had impressed him.

Andrew and I now joined Spud as school pollies. Three in one house was unusual, but we had expected it, because the captain and vice-captain of the school were never launched cold into the job. In this case there was no ceremony, just our names at the top of the HM’s list of new appointees on the school notice board. All we had to do was go to the school shop for the white boaters which were our badge of office, and put them on.

Andrew dived into his cricket. So young a captain and a two-year term of office were almost unparalleled, but the authorities, like me, held his powers of leadership in high esteem. I felt massively proud of him.

I had nothing so intensive to dive into, not yet. But one of my existing responsibilities was the school library. It was under the general supervision of a master, but its day-to-day running was in the hands of three boys — a librarian and a couple of sub-librarians. The library being well-stocked and well-used, our job was quite a time-consuming one, re-shelving books left on the tables, sending out reminders and levying small fines for late returns, stock-taking, and, with the master in charge, deciding on new purchases and cataloguing them. I had been a sub-librarian for years, and librarian since last September. That now led me, indirectly, into a heart-to-heart with Steve.

The master in charge had hitherto been Mr Needham, a languages teacher, and when in March it was announced that he was leaving to take up a headmastership somewhere, I waylaid him in the quad.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re leaving, sir. We’re going to miss you in the library. Is it in order to suggest who your successor might be?”

“Most certainly not. Who?” That was typical of the man, and indeed of the staff.

“Mr Phillips, sir.”

“Hmpph,” was all Mr Needham said.

But at the end of lessons, the first day of the summer term, Steve had me stay behind.

“I’m now in charge of the library, Leon,” he said. “I understand you were instrumental in that. That was very kind of you.”

He seemed genuinely grateful, and no doubt grateful too for the honorarium which presumably went with the job. He did not know, and never would, that I had also been instrumental in his appointment as head of classics two years earlier. We talked for a while about the library. I had intended at some later stage to talk to him about next year, but found myself loving the man so much that I decided to do it there and then.

“Sir, on a different subject. May I ask your advice? And even for your help? Did you know that I’m going to be captain of the school next year?”

“I didn’t, I’m ashamed to say. But I’m delighted to hear it. You’ll make an excellent captain.”

“Will I? I don’t want the job. Not in the least. Because I don’t feel I’m up to it.” I poured out my self-doubts about being a leader of men, and how Andrew had countered them.

“Andrew is a wise man. In some ways wiser than you are, Leon, because he’s quite right. You’re perfectly capable of doing it. More capable now than you were. You’ve changed over the last term, did you know that? Before then, you had dedication and drive in your work, nobody could deny it. And in your love for Andrew and all that goes with it. But in nothing else that I could see. The potential was there, but you weren’t using it. Since then you’ve been spreading your wings. You’ve a determination now that you didn’t have before.”

“Well, OK.” I was embarrassed. “That’s because I’ve been fighting battles in the house. As you know. And maybe because I’m girding my loins for this new job. But you know, sir, the prospect still scares me silly.”

“Why? Surely captaincy of the house will be tougher, and from all I hear you’ve already got your flock behind you there. After all, being captain of the school isn’t a very onerous affair, is it?”

“Normally, no. But I went and talked myself into it on a manifesto of reform. In the school as well as the house.”

I explained how I had shot my mouth to Andrew, and I gave him a brief outline of the Crusade.

“Keep all this under your hat, please, sir. I’d rather it didn’t get out until I’m in a position to do something about it. But we both think it needs doing. If Andrew were captain he’d do it, all of it, much better than me. But he hasn’t the time. So he asked me to do it. I said yes because I love him. But I’m frightened.”

“I can see that you’ve got a crusade lined up, and I can see why you find the prospect daunting, and I can see why you want it kept under wraps. I won’t pass it on. But why do you think it all needs to be done?”

“Well, take fagging,” I said. We were side by side at the window, looking down into the quad. “Take that boy.” I pointed.

The end-of-morning rush had subsided, but there were still quite a few people about. Victor was standing by the colonnade as if on the look-out for someone. As we watched, he spotted one of our fags, called him over, scribbled a note, and gave it to him. The fag dumped his books on a shelf and ran off.

“That’s Victor, a colleague of mine. He’s sent Tom with a message to someone in Hamilton’s, by the look of it. Why couldn’t Victor have searched out that someone himself five minutes ago when lessons ended? Or gone to Hamilton’s himself? Tom was probably going to spend his free time before lunch relaxing with a book, or yattering with his friends, or getting on with his model-making. Now he can’t. Why should he sacrifice his leisure for Victor’s whims? Quite unnecessary whims. That’s why I want to abolish fagging. The less scope there is for abuse of power, the less it will be abused. The less injustice will be done.

“And there’s so much inequality. It’s a master-servant set-up, and I don’t like it. The pollies reap all the glory. They live a cushy life being served by minions. If anything it ought to be the other way round. They’re older, supposedly more responsible. It ought to be them helping the younger ones. But they don’t even respect them. Or some of them don’t. Those two are expected to call each other by their surnames. Out of supposed inferiority and superiority. It’s a small thing, but why can’t we use first names, like friends?

“It’s rather like you calling us by our first names. You’re the only master who does — in school, I mean, not in the house — and we appreciate it. I’m going to use first names with boys, from now on. And try to get them to call me Leon.”

I was on a slightly sticky wicket here. The logical conclusion to fostering friendship in this way was for me to call him Steve, not sir. I would gladly do so, but there were some things one could not suggest.

“Anyway, that’s the sort of thing I’m after. I’ve never used fags yet. To run errands for me, or clean my Corps kit, or whatever. But I reckon most pollies take it as a god-given right. It’s persuading them that frightens me.”

“So you’re already leading by setting an example. And Andrew presumably does too.”

“Yes, of course he does. And our new pollies say they’ll do the same.”

“Then perhaps you won’t have to kill fagging, Leon. Perhaps it will die of its own accord, under your lead. Have you thought of that?”

I had not. It was an interesting thought. A very interesting one.

“So where do I come in? Apart from assuring you that you have my support?”

“In what we do when we’re together next year, sir. All this time, you see, I’ve been living a safe and cosy life, out of the public eye, doing work I love. I haven’t exactly been a hermit, but you know what I mean. I’ve been living in a narrow little world, and I’ve been happy there. And next year’s work promises to be an extension of that. Tutorials, almost, just you and me. I couldn’t ask for better. For myself. But now it’s not just for myself.

“It’ll be all too easy to take my eye off the ball. To snuggle down in my nice warm nest. Andrew called it ‘living a life of lazy luxury discussing Plato with Steve’.” Too late, I realised that in effect I had called him Steve to his face, and I thought I saw a flicker of amusement. “But I can’t afford to. Not now. That’s where I want help most. Please don’t let me snuggle down. Keep me on my toes.”

“Point taken. We can’t have you arriving in Cambridge rusty, though, so you’ll have to carry on with some reading and translation. But yes, I’ll try to keep your public persona in good order.”

I told Andrew about it.

“You’re certainly leading, not driving,” he replied. “And he could be right that fagging might die on its own, now that you’ve set the example. Floods grow out of trickles, as Spud might say.”

Spud actually called it the thin end of the wedge. He and Dave and Victor continued to drive the fags hard, apparently daring us to do something about it. But we refused the gambit. Overall, the fags’ lot was already much lighter. Because none of ‘us’ used them at all, they now had only three pollies to work for, in contrast to five last term and seven the term before. And there were no more bimmings, and as far as we knew no requests to bim.

Even Jim, no longer a grumbling back-bench rebel, found it in him to endure the old gang’s shenanigans without confrontation. He saw, as we did, that it would be counterproductive to make them lose more face. They were almost-extinct volcanoes now. They might still belch sporadic showers of lava and of ash, but gone were their days of deadly eruption. Everybody knew it, and so did they. Although I remained alert and even on edge, morale in the house improved and life was easier. And one Saturday morning something very interesting happened.

It revolved around Andrew as captain of cricket. That day, the First XI were playing a visiting team at home, and as usual the match would start immediately after Assembly. As Andrew and I came out of breakfast, a panting fag arrived from another house with the message that a member of the team had gone down with a bug and could not play.

“Oh hell!” said Andrew. He thanked the fag gracefully and asked him to give his good wishes to the invalid. “I’ll have to whistle up Mark instead. But he’ll have to bring his gear in to school with him, and he’s way out in Hamilton’s. How the heck do I contact him? I can’t go myself, I’m due at Bull’s in five minutes.”

“I’d go for you, but I’ve got to get the library reminders done by Assembly.”

“Excuse me, Andrew,” said a polite young voice behind us. “Do you want a fag?” It was Bob Freshwater. “I’ll go, if you like.”

A fag offering his services off his own bat … We stared at him for several seconds as the humour, the ludicrousness, of it sank in. Then we rocked with laughter. All three of us.

“Thank you very much, Bob,” said Andrew. “It would be huge help, if you really don’t mind. Just find Mark Brown in Hamilton’s and tell him he’s playing today and to bring his gear in. Bless you, Bob. Right, Leon, see you later.” Both of them ran off.

“Leon, a word with you.” I had not been aware that Spud had overheard us. He was lowering, almost spitting with disgust. “First-name terms with fags? Sucking up to them? Currying favour by being lenient? Do you really think that’s how pollies behave?”

I was never at ease with Spud, even these days. He still made me angry. But I had learned that he exploited weakness. It paid to deal with him firmly.

“Yes. It’s how I think they ought to behave, and it’s how I try to behave. You’ve got your method, I’ve got mine. And don’t try to take it out on Bob. Remember what happened last time you did. Now excuse me, please, I must get my library work done.”

That afternoon at the Upper — the main cricket ground where all school matches were played — I had a word with Andrew. We were batting, and he had made a useful 49 before being bowled.

“You know,” I said, “there are bound to be times when you really do need a fag, like this morning. For genuine house or school purposes, not personal ones. I’m dead against general fag calls, but why not have a list and simply take them in rotation? That wouldn’t be much of an imposition. At our present rate of progress we’d hardly get the whole way through it in a year.”

“Yeeees. I suppose that has to be the way forward. We can hardly abolish general fagging altogether.”

“But another thing. If we’re going egalitarian, oughtn’t all fags to be equal? No exemptions for academic or sporting reasons?”

“Agreed. No problem with that, surely, as there’ll be hardly anything for them to do. Oh damn!” A batsman had just been bowled. “Poor Mark. But a good innings. And that bowler’s got a deadly in-swing. It’s what clobbered me.” He went off to commend and commiserate.

Andrew took his captaining very seriously, and captaining took a great deal of his time. The rest was taken by his A-level work. For the six weeks until his exams were over he had no spare time at all, not even for visits to our bolt-hole. I lightened his load as best I could. One day, quite early in the term, he poked his head into my study for something or other.

“Hey! That’s my Sam Browne you’re polishing! You’re fagging for me!”

“Of course. This is the Republic of Barataria. How does it go?

The Earl, the Marquis, and the Dook,
The Groom, the Butler, and the Cook,
The Aristocrat who hunts and shoots,
The Aristocrat who cleans the boots,
The Noble Lord who rules the State,
The Noble Lord who scrubs the grate,
The Lord High Bishop orthodox,
The Lord High Vagabond in the stocks —
They all shall equal be!

“If I don’t do your Sam Browne, no-one else will. Can’t have under-officers letting the side down.”

Weeks later, he picked up the same theme with me.

Corps uniform was one thing. School uniform was another. It was moderately antediluvian, and stark. Black jacket and grey flannel trousers, except that on Sundays and special days all pollies wore tailed morning coat, waistcoat and pinstripe trousers. Black shoes, black tie. White cotton shirt with detachable soft collar and all the fiddle of collar studs and cuff links. Vest underneath and grey pullover on top in the winter. No hats allowed, except school pollies’ boaters. Nobody ever wore an overcoat, even when snow was thick on the ground, but macs were permissible when it rained, and school pollies were allowed umbrellas (why brollies only for pollies, for heaven’s sake? Make a note).

People wore a uniform, then, but they did not wear it uniformly. A few were dandies, always spick and span. A number were downright scruffy, with scuffed shoes, crumpled trousers, and food stains on jackets which bulged and sagged with the weight of stuff in the pockets. Most were somewhere in between. It depended partly on your nature. Andrew was naturally a tidy man, I was naturally untidy. He had been known to clean my shoes for me when I could not be bothered.

More importantly, it also depended on your house captain. He might not be very bothered either, and adopt a policy of live and let live. Or he might be a tartar. Spud, of course, was a tartar with strong views on appearance. “You may not be a gentleman,“ he would bark, “but you’re supposed to look like one.” Many a fag, and many a non-fag too, was barked at or even confined for looking like a tramp.

The same with hair. No school rule actually specified a length, but you had a pretty good idea of what was just permissible and what was beyond the pale. Spud, of course, had short back and sides and expected everyone to have the same. But while a military crop might suit some people’s character or their style of beauty, it did not suit everyone’s. In my case, I reckoned my rather narrow face looked even sillier under a short haircut, and I kept my hair as long as I could.

The same with shaving. Spud forced many a wretched pubescent boy to shave his fluff long before he needed to. Once your face really did need shaving, the slightest hint of stubble and Spud was down on you like a ton of bricks. He had come down on me — on all counts of clothes and hair and stubble — more than once, before and after I was a polly.

On one occasion towards the end of term we were in our bolt-hole. While I could never say that Andrew neglected me, he had been deeply preoccupied with work and cricket. His exams, however, were now over and he had more time to spare for pampering my fretfulness and administering his inimitable comfort. Throughout the term, as I contemplated the future, I had been suffering from periodic bouts of depression and self-doubt.

“You are in a bad state, ocelle, aren’t you?” he said. “When you really don’t need to be. How do we stiffen your sinews and summon up your blood? I don’t mean what your vulgar mind supposes. I mean what Henry V meant.” He let go of my hand. “Stand up, my soul. I want to look at you.” He ran his eye over me. “Yes, you know, Spud’s right, in a way.”

“Bugger Spud.”

“I’d much rather not. But he is right, for once. If you took more pride in your appearance you’d take more pride in yourself. If I make some suggestions, are you going to bite me?”

I could not help grinning. “Go on, then. I won’t bite. I’ll only bark, like Spud.”

“Right then. Here goes. Shoes — brush more often. Trousers — press them and get the creases back. Jacket — have it cleaned, and empty those pockets. Tie — it’s frayed, as well as loose. Get a new one. Collar — those long points always curl up. Get these blunt ones like mine. Hair — I like it that length, but it needs tidying up. And combing more often. When you’re captain of the house, not to mention captain of the school, you’ve got to look good. And if you look good, you’ll feel good. Or better.”

Spud’s driving had not worked, not with me. Andrew’s leading did. A few evenings later when he came in from cricket I was waiting for him in his study, newly packaged.

“Oh, Leon!” He sat down to take in the sight. “Remember that time you met me on Cambridge station? You’d made a real effort and transformed yourself. You’ve done it again.”

He was right. I did feel transformed. At tea Spud noticed.

“That’s better! Still not happy about your hair. But you’re not letting the side down now. Glad to see you’ve listened to my advice.”

I smiled graciously, and Andrew tried not to laugh. No harm in allowing Spud his little victories.

Contrary to what I had expected, the HM did not consult only the housemasters about new school pollies, but sought my views. There was nothing contentious about his nominees for next term — all the new house captains who were not school pollies already, plus a few others — but it felt good to be asked.

In the house, Dave and Victor were of course leaving along with Spud, as, alas, was Jim. I raised the subject of replacements with Wally in good time. I wanted to try out the basics of the Crusade on the whole new team before we parted for eight weeks, and I wanted to underline, publicly and in advance, the clean break from Spud’s regime. So I asked Wally, without spelling out my reasons, if he could install the new pollies at the very end of this term rather than the very beginning of next. He took no persuading, and I thought he understood more than I told him.

So the five of ‘us’ met and agreed to nominate Julian Grindling and Hezekiah Ataya, who were both wise and gentle; only two, not four, to allow room for later expansion. Wally went along with us.

On the last day, Spud buttonholed me. He had two things to get off his chest. The first took some time. The elder statesman bequeathing the fruits of his experience to the novice wet behind the ears, he poured out his philosophy on how to rule. He did not see himself as a tyrant, and genuinely thought he had served the house well. But I confess I did not listen very hard.

“You’ve got funny ideas, Leon,” he ended. “We haven’t always seen eye to eye. But you’re firm. I like people who’re firm. You’ve got a soft lot of pollies, though. Don’t let them be soft with the house. A firm hand is what boys understand.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “They do. They recognise what’s behind it.”

Spud had difficulty in launching his second item, but after much um-ing and ah-ing he finally got somewhere near the point.

“Wally tells me he’s making the new pollies tonight. And who they are. I know it’s not really my business, and if they’d been made next term I wouldn’t even have known. But tonight I’ve got to do something I never thought I’d have to. I mean, charity begins at home, doesn’t it?”

“What’s the problem, Spud? Exactly?” It was already obvious, but he had to be made to spell it out.

“Well, dammit, I’ve got to shake hands with him. He’s not really a pukka sahib, is he? I mean he’s not, er, one of us. He can’t be. After all, he’s not English.”

I sighed inwardly and pretended to misunderstand.

“So what? Hez’s English is as good as yours.” Better, actually. He didn’t talk in clichés. “And we’ve got Welshmen like Buv. And Scots like Duncan Finlay. And don’t forget Istvan.”

Istvan Fock was a refugee from the Hungarian uprising whom we had had for a couple of years. When he discovered what his surname almost meant, he had laughed as hard as anyone, and had been a brilliant polly.

“That’s different. I mean, I’ve got nothing against Hez himself, but … oh well.” He evidently realised he was making no headway. “It’s your look-out.”

“But please don’t think I overlook your advice, Spud. I’ve learnt so much from you. In fact, you know, you’ve been a father-figure to me. I’ve learnt as much from you about how to handle people as I did from my real father.”

Every word of that was true, and he lapped it up. Poor Spud. He was not very bright.

That night, to general surprise and much applause, the polly-making ceremony took place, and Spud forced himself to shake hands with Julian, even though he was soft, and with Hez, even though he was soft and black. I immediately dragged the whole new team, plus Jim for good measure, away for a confab. Squeezing seven people into my study, like squeezing umpteen into a telephone kiosk, surely qualified for the Guinness Book of Records, and I kept things as short as I could.

I summarised the Crusade, emphasising its basis of humanity, respect and equality. On fagging, everyone present was already committed to its extinction, or its virtual extinction. Under the example of MacNair’s, it might naturally expire in other houses too. If it needed legislation, the question was how best to formulate it. On the other main plank of my platform, I outlined my thoughts for a communal centre and for a School Council — was it desirable and, if so, how best to constitute it? I asked them to ponder these questions over the holidays.

But Hez voiced his first thoughts there and then. “This last year we’ve seen exploitation and dictatorship, curbed only by your efforts. You’re proposing a democracy. Not a parliamentary one like Westminster, which wouldn’t work in a school, but a one-party democracy. That isn’t a contradiction in terms, so long as the government respects individuals and listens to everybody. That’s what we’ll have in Kenya, with independence. We have a proverb, heshima tukipeana daima tutapendana — if we respect one another, we can love one another. That’s what you’re proposing. And it is right.”

Early next morning we bade a fond farewell to Jim, promising to keep in touch, and a more temporary one to the other four.

I was not too unhappy about the way the last two terms had gone. Though it could have been smoother, it could have been a damned sight worse. But one thing in particular bothered me. My standing in the house had long been neutral, neither popular not unpopular. To most people I had been an enigmatic oddball. Now my prestige had rocketed, simply because Spud was an easy act for a reformer to follow: any lightening of his burden would have been greeted with enthusiasm. In contrast, had I succeeded Alan Gregory, say, that model of humanity and respect, my reforms would have seemed pallid. I was being given more credit, far more, than I deserved. I felt a fraud.

But what had happened had happened. Miraculously, Spud & Co had shot themselves in the foot. Here in the house, the battle of fagging was already won. Here, I was among friends, among people who maybe had not been friends before but who were now. Here, I felt less unsure of myself. But I still had misgivings. I felt I had been shooing from behind, not leading from in front.

In school, though, it was another matter. There, I had not even started shooing, let alone leading. There, I had few friends. There, all the battles still lay ahead. There, I was not in the least sure of myself. I was a-jitter with trepidation.