The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

7. Rank by rank

Rank by rank again we stand,
From the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls demand
Whence we come, and how, and whither?
From their stillness breaking clear,
Echoes wake to warn or cheer.
Higher truth and holier good
Call our mustered brotherhood

J. H. Skrine, Yarborough beginning-of-term hymn

I made my way to School House. The HM was businesslike and dealt only with the lessons for the coming week in Chapel and Assembly. No problem there. Then to Wally, with whom I spent another fifteen minutes on organisational matters, mostly to do with new fire precautions. When they had been sorted out, he looked at me almost as if giving me my cue. I took it.

“It’s not the right time now, sir, but may I have a longer chat with you soon?”

I could have sworn he was relieved. “Yes, of course. What’s this all about?

“We’ve got a few ideas for changes in the house, sir, and I’d like to try them out on you.”

“Only a few?” He was openly smiling at me.

Blow me. Like the HM, he was expecting this. But how? Had they heard rumour of the Crusade, even though I had sworn everyone to secrecy? Or did they assume that we had not shot our bolt with our unofficial moves so far? Or, even, had they long ago identified us as reformers and deliberately put us in charge? Whatever the answer, they seemed positively to expect us to be new brooms. Already the future looked rosier.

“Yes, of course,” he repeated. “What about after Chapel this evening?”

I went very thoughtfully to the archway, where a sporadic flow of cars was disgorging boys and luggage. At this point Spud would have been tucked up in his study, joking with his cronies. But now I was in charge. The boys were under my wing, and I felt I should be on hand to welcome them back — by their first names — and be polite to their parents.

Buv and Good were coming on the school train, but I had asked the other pollies to join me if they could. Soon Julian and Hez turned up, and finally Andrew, and all stayed by my side. When the flow of cars stopped, Andrew asked quietly but anxiously about my day, and I filled him in. He was intrigued by my account of Nick, and astonished that the authorities seemed to be expecting the Crusade. Had we been at home he would have hugged me.

Boys now began to appear on foot, straggling in from the railway station. Among them were Good and Buv, cracking jokes and slapping us on the shoulder. And Bob Freshwater, greeting me shyly. I had told Nick an untruth. Eight weeks ago Bob had been an alto, but now he was a tenor and several inches, it seemed, taller. When they were all welcomed and inside, we could leave our post, Andrew to work on team lists, I to plan my session with Wally.

Then tea. Lunch was our main meal. In the evening it was only bread and butter, jam, cake, biscuits, and tea to wash it down. We were not overfed. As the meal began, we had the first roll-call. The pollies sat at their own table at the end of hall. Easy to see if any of them was missing. The rest replied to their names as Andrew called them out. This was one of the vice-captain’s jobs.

Appleton — here. Hitchcock — here. Finlay — here. Bridges — here. Lavender — here. Griffiths — here …

Even if it became the norm to use people’s first names, we’d still have to call the roll by surname, wouldn’t we? Or should we use both names, even though it would take longer?

Down to the new boys — Bye, Cadwalader, Colwell, Epworth, Marjoram, Robson, Starkey, Ward. All present and correct. That was a relief.

At the far end of hall I glimpsed Nick listening intently to his neighbour — his tutor Bob — and suddenly both of them caught my eye. Were they talking about me?

Immediately self-conscious, I turned my attention to the pollies’ table. Andrew at the opposite end, on either side Hez and Julian, Buv and Good. Right-minded men, all of them, a team which would work well together. I felt a pride in my lieutenants … No — not that word. It smacked of military hierarchy, of Spud’s officers’ mess. Rank did not matter. I was just primus inter pares, first among equals. So were we all, in the house.

Banter was being flung across from our table to others nearby, and flung back. That would never have happened last year. But it was right. Talk was louder and cheerier than usual. True, spirits were always high at the start of term, but there was an atmosphere I had not seen for a year. Spud would have yelled for less noise. It would have to rise by several decibels before I would dream of stepping in.

I looked round the pollies again and smiled. They smiled back. Andrew certainly knew what I was thinking, and probably the others did too, and agreed with me. I was happy. Happy that term had started well for the house, but still scared about the start of term for the school. That was in Chapel, in half an hour.

Andrew and I left early to take up our places. Apart from the choir and the two duty pollies, everyone sat with their form. This first night, to avoid chaos inside, they assembled outside, each around his own form master. When the last new boy had been guided to the right place, they filed in, form by form. Andrew and I, as duty pollies, stood at attention side by side in the porch.

My mind by now was in turmoil. Here I did not feel in the least like a leader. Leading the house was one thing. I had half come to terms with that already, and there I had already achieved a good half of my programme. Leading the school was quite another. It was a much larger ship, whose crew I did not know nearly so well. The Crusade made the coming voyage tougher still, with a real risk of foundering.

Andrew had been right. I had been remiss. I should have pushed myself harder and earlier. I should have gained experience of leadership, as he had done. I was guilty of sloth. I was ashamed of my sins. But I was aware that, if I dwelt on them, my small ration of confidence would dwindle to nothing.

Andrew understood my turmoil. He was shoulder to shoulder beside me, and I felt his hand find mine, pull it back out of sight, and press it. It reassured me.

Everybody was now inside and we were alone. The bell stopped tolling and the organ prelude swelled out through the open doorway. He gave me an encouraging smile, I gave him a twisted one in reply. Side by side we went in, and side by side marched up the centre of Chapel. Everyone stood up. Our places were in the front row of the nave, one either side of the aisle, Andrew’s on the right, mine on the left. The HM and Steve, who had followed us from the vestry, swept past to their stalls behind the choir. The organ died away.

It was a short and simple service, anthem-less because the full choir had had no chance to practise. Like Andrew, I was wholly non-religious, in the sense that I was not a believer. The details of Christian dogma said nothing to me. But I had been bathed in the tradition of liberal Anglicanism which Yarborough preached. I was entirely at home with its basic ethos, and had long been in love with its music and with the incomparable language of the Book of Common Prayer.

And I was wholly in favour of the other — the main — purpose behind tonight’s gathering. The school was a community — should be a community — the community I stood for, and this was a ritual to bond its reunited members together and to welcome its newcomers. Set alongside that, the religious trimmings seemed almost an irrelevance. I felt no hypocrisy in taking part.

First the bidding prayer. Then the Magnificat, sung to the setting by Stanford in C major. My mind was fixed on the coming lesson, and I paid little attention until we got to ‘He hath exalted the humble and meek.’ Feeling Andrew’s gaze on me, I turned to see him give me a meaning look. As I turned back, my eye lit on Nick. He was full in my view, in the front row of the choir on the decani side. He too was looking at me as he sang. Was his the same message? I did not feel in the least exalted. I felt utterly inadequate.

Then the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a psalm. Number 139.

Oh Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me; thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising; thou understandest my thoughts long before.

That helped. That helped a lot. Because, if I had a lord and a saviour, it was Andrew. I never told him so, for it would embarrass him. But he knew me, better than I knew myself. He was always with me in the spirit. He comforted me and gave me strength. I glanced at him again across the aisle.

If I climb up into the heavens, thou art there. If I go down to hell, thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there also shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand shall hold me.

Now it was my turn. Mentally clinging to Andrew’s right hand, I climbed the three steps to the choir and turned round, the bible open in my hands because Chapel had no lectern. I had been surprised at the HM’s choice of lesson, which was not the normal one for the occasion. I had asked if I might use the Revised Standard Version, more accessible in language than the Authorised. Andrew and I shared the opinion that these were the best words in the whole Bible. I suddenly realised that I had forgotten to give him advance warning. Too late now.

I surveyed the sea of faces in front of me, gathering their attention. “1 Corinthians, chapter 13,” I pronounced. I was modestly proud of my public voice, which is deep, and powerful when needed. I saw Andrew’s eyes widen as he identified the text, and beside me I thought I heard Nick draw in his breath. Then I read.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal …

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends …

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

That was it. Hoping all things, I closed the book and resumed my place. Andrew’s and Nick’s eyes were still on me.

A couple of prayers from Steve, and the organ launched into the hymn, the climax of the service.

Yarborough has its own two special hymns for the beginning and the end of term. Both are sung to the same tune, and both were written far back in Victorian times, with the sentiments and language of their period. They are no masterpieces. But I loved them, almost sentimentally, for their associations with a place which, for all its faults, I deeply loved. It was traditional to sing them fortississimo, and the thunder of the organ and of seven hundred voices at full blast was unforgettable.

The first line of tonight’s hymn always raised covert smiles: ‘Rank by rank again we stand.’ The reverend author was evidently unaware that a slight mispronunciation of the letter ‘r’ gives it a new meaning; or possibly in his day the word in question had not yet been coined. But the school always sang it that way, and with great clarity. The HM, though surely no innocent, never turned a hair. Nick, of course, was meeting the hymn for the first time, and I saw shocked delight on his face, and a manfully suppressed smile.

I sang two verses with gusto, but was pulled up short by the third. I had not realised its relevance. Here were the same thoughts that had anguished me out there in the porch.

Brother, if with lure unblest,
Tempter-wise the past betray thee,
Rise once more to war addressed,
Fair the field, thy God to aid thee;
Lo! Once more the morn begins,
Scatters as the clouds thy sins;
Rise, and bid thy morrow slay
Shades or shames of yesterday.

A good omen, surely. Again I felt Andrew’s gaze on me, and as I looked across at him with the beginnings of tears in my eyes, he gave me another smile.

The last verse thundered to a close.

Pure, for mute above us move
Wings of the immortal love.

I knew that love. I knew it well. To me, it was not God’s love. It was Andrew’s.

Finally the blessing. Steve and the HM headed for the vestry. Andrew and I marched back down the aisle. In our footsteps followed the congregation. As we emerged, Andrew glanced over his shoulder at the milling mass behind.

“The shepherd leading his flock,” he said, and he squeezed my arm.

Together we walked back to the house, in silent harmony. Andrew knew as well as I did that the coming session with Wally would be the first big test of the Crusade, and neither of us needed to say so. But he gave my arm another squeeze. Where would I be without him? Dead, was the short answer, but that was not something to be thought about now.

Round at the private side, Wally had just got in and was taking off his gown. He sat me in an armchair and offered me a glass of wine. Very civil of him. I needed it.

“That was a formidable start to your captaincy, Leon. You do read well. And your confidence was impressive.”

Ho! I could not really have fooled him, could I? If I had, I did not want to.

“Any confidence I had, sir, was second-hand. Borrowed.”

He looked at me, working it out. Correctly.

“The lesson was very appropriate, then. Was it of your choosing?”

“No, sir. The headmaster’s.”

“Ah. He’s a great man, you know.”

Yes, I was beginning to know.

“Anyway. Changes in the house, Leon. Fire away.”

I took a deep breath. “Last year wasn’t a happy one, sir. Things have always been hierarchical, but last year was much worse than usual. We want this year to be happier. And the years to come. We want greater equality. We want to ditch a lot of tradition. Not to put too fine a point on it, we want to abolish fagging, as far as we can. Get rid of the master-servant mentality. Get rid of rules which discriminate between fags and non-fags. I know it’s a lot to ask for … “

“Is it? Why?”

That was not the reaction I had expected, and it threw me. “Well … things have been that way since before the flood. Nobody has ever questioned them, as far as I know. They seem to be the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not.”

“But Leon, they aren’t. The way the house is run isn’t laid down in black and white. Like the nation, we don’t have a written constitution. But unlike the nation, we don’t need an act of parliament to take a new course. I don’t know either how far back these traditions go, but there’s nothing sacred about them. No, I’m wrong there. There is one tradition I do hold sacred.

“It’s the one that I’ve talked to you about before: that responsibility for the day-to-day running of the house lies wholly in the pollies’ hands. I appoint the pollies. Therefore I trust them, unless they overstep the mark. So long as you don’t overstep the mark — and, knowing you, Leon, you’re not very likely to — you’re a free agent.”

Good grief. Had I been agonising over nothing?

“You think that I sit here minding my own business, don’t you? So I do, I hope. But perhaps I notice more of what goes on than you imagine. It’s been very interesting, these last two terms, to watch the line you’ve taken. And Andrew too, of course, and then John and Bryn. Using first names with everyone, making no use of fags. Not for the sake of courting popularity — that was very obvious — but following your consciences.

“As long as you were subordinates, your policy was a personal one, dictated by your consciences. Now that you’re in charge, you want to register that policy as your official one. So you’re very properly putting it to me. Believe me, I appreciate that — Oliver never did. And I wholeheartedly approve of it. I have no objections whatever.”

“But … “

“Listen, Leon. The position is really very simple. The house is yours, for the duration. Yours, for all practical purposes, much more than it is mine. You are its leader. You’re like Andrew captaining his rugger team. He chooses the strategy and tactics which seem best to him. That’s his job. It’s exactly the same for you. You captain your house as you see best. I won’t interfere with your strategy or your tactics, so long as they’re permissible. I am the referee. I only blow my whistle if I spot a foul.

“Look at last year. Oliver captained his team in the way he thought best, a way very different from yours. I didn’t much like it, but it was permissible, just. I only blew my whistle when Simon committed a foul. Thinking of fouls, by the way, perhaps I should have blown the whistle on that similar occasion a few years ago, when Bill Jessop beat you. I admit that that did put me in a spot.”

“You won’t be in that sort of spot with us, sir. We won’t be asking to beat anyone. We think it’s too open to injustice and, well, frankly, too inhuman in this day and age. Is there any way of stopping it for good?”

“If the right’s not exercised for a year or two, I doubt if anyone will try to revive it. But I take your point. I think I can promise that if I’m asked thereafter, I will say no.”

“Thank you, sir.” That was another big relief. “But can one make all these changes in one house but not in others?”

“I don’t see why not. Houses are largely a law unto themselves. They differ already. But that’s something you ought to ask the headmaster. Especially because I suspect your ambitions aren’t limited just to MacNair’s.“

He was cocking an almost teasing eyebrow at me. No flies on Wally. I smiled.

“No, sir, they’re not. And yes, I will raise it with him.”

“I think you’ll find him more amenable than you expect.”

“That’s encouraging. Then perhaps my worst hurdle will be persuading other house captains.”

“Well, good luck with it, Leon. Have the courage of your convictions … why does that surprise you?”

“Because it’s the second time I’ve been told that today. I bumped into Mr Venables.”

“Ah, yes.” Wally smiled. “You impressed him so much when you first met that he’s been taking quite a paternal interest in your career. I seem to remember that we’ve both used that phrase — the courage of your convictions — when talking about you.”

Well, I’ll be blowed.

“Meanwhile, how are you going to break the news of your revolution to the house?”

“I’d rather call it reform, sir. Revolution seems too, um, violent a word. Oh, I’ll tell them tonight, straight out, after prayers.”

He chuckled. “I’d love to see the reaction. To be a fly on the wall.”

“Why not, sir? Shall I leave the dividing door ajar so you can hear?”

“I don’t snoop.” He was smiling broadly at me now. “You know that, I hope. But since you invite me to listen, I will. Not because I don’t trust you, but because I do. Thank you.”

I walked on air back to the boys’ side. In hall I paused, planning how to handle things. Not only how to announce the changes, but how to welcome the new boys. They tended to have a raw deal, to be taken for granted. I felt we ought to go out of our way to make them feel at home. Then I collected the pollies together.

“I’ve just seen Wally,” I reported. “To cut a long tale short … “

“As the monkey said when he backed into the lawnmower.”

“Shut up, Buv … it’s great news. We’ve an absolutely free hand. He’s got no objection to anything we want.”

There was amazement, delight, and back-slapping.

“Oh damn, I forgot to ask him about the music room. But we can raise that over lunch tomorrow. Look, I‘d like to break the news to the house after prayers. This is what I’m thinking of saying … “

When that was approved, we adjourned to hall, picking up Bob on the way, for we had a new pianist now. Last year Dave had accompanied the hymns, and I had asked Bob to step into his shoes. It was just as well we had left plenty of time. Spud had always been dictatorial in his choice of the hymn, and choosing a suitable one democratically proved harder than expected. I had rather wanted ‘Say not the struggle nought availeth,’ but discovered it was not in our hymn book. Other suggestions were thrown up, none of them quite right for the occasion.

“What about Number 533?” asked Bob. “‘Now thank we all our God.’ Nice chorale melody, Leon. Nun danket.”

We had told him we were celebrating, but not what, and Nun danket was very appropriate. Everyone could interpret ‘our God’ in his own way.

Prayers over and Wally out of the room, I left the dividing door ajar and stood at the end of hall for my inaugural speech. It should not be difficult. I would dwell not on the divisive past but on the fairer future.

“Right, best if you sit down, because I’ve quite a lot to say tonight.

“First of all, welcome back to everyone, and” — I turned to the new boys — “a specially warm welcome to those of you who’re here for the first time. To you, I’m afraid, some things I’ll be saying won’t make much sense, but your tutors will explain. I’ll come back to you later.

“Next, a very important practical matter. You probably heard that last term they had a bad fire at Ingleton School, when a couple of boys were trapped and died. Yarborough and its insurers have taken fright and taken notice. Over the holidays a start has been made on upgrading our fire precautions. We’ve now got six fire alarms and six fire extinguishers in the house.”

I specified exactly where they all were. “Please familiarise yourselves with them. And tutors, please show them to the new boys. If you spot a fire, break the glass in the nearest alarm. If you hear the alarm — it’s the bell ringing continuously — make your way straight to Wally’s lawn … “

Oops, he was being a fly on the wall, wasn’t he? But it would have sounded silly to call him Mr MacNair.

“In about a week we’ll be having full-scale instruction and full-scale practice drills. One by day. No great problem there, I hope. And one by night, when we’ll be woken up in the small hours. There’s something to look forward to.

“Now, the next item is very different but equally important. In this house we’re a community. The pollies and I want it to be a friendly one, with fewer barriers than there have been in the past. A more egalitarian one, with less emphasis on rank and seniority. We hope you agree. It means quite a lot of quite big changes in the way we live. Let me spell them out.

“First, you’ll have noticed that we already call everyone by their first name or nickname. We hope for the sake of friendliness and equality that all of you will follow suit, with everyone. Last term, if Bob, for example, had called Spud ‘Spud’ to his face, he’d have been for it.” That raised grins. “Bob already calls me Leon. There’s no compulsion, of course, but that’s the way we’d like it.”

There was no sign of objection so far.

“Second, fagging. Plenty of changes here. In the interests of equality again, there’ll be no more exemptions from fagging.”

There was naked shock on the faces of those who had been exempt, and I grinned. “Don’t look so worried. There’s virtually no fagging left to do.” I ticked off the points on my fingers.

“Corps fagging — already over and done with, of course.

“Study fagging — from now on, no more cleaning of pollies’ studies, but the corridors still need sweeping. There’ll be a rota for that. It works out at once a year per fag.

“Dorm fagging — no more. No tidying of pollies’ clothes, no calling the time. Bert will ring the bell at five-minute intervals from half past seven.

“General fagging — this will be minimal. There’ll still be the occasional job that needs doing, like taking a message, but strictly on house or school business only. There’ll be another rota posted on the board. We’ll whistle you up in turn, and you can see at a glance when your turn is getting close. We doubt if we’ll get through the whole list in a year. So there will be no more fag calls.”

Apart from the new boys, who were not surprisingly bewildered, the lower half of the house had been drinking in every word, and at this point broke into applause and even whoops of delight. Higher up the house, though, a few faces looked dubious. I turned to them.

“Some of you may feel that, having done your stint on the treadmill, it’s only fair that everyone else should do theirs. I see your point. But ask yourself this. When you were on the treadmill, wouldn’t you have welcomed any chance to get off it? Please don’t begrudge the fags their liberation. This is a time for unselfishness. And the same applies to the third item. Which is this.

“House rules still stand, except where they discriminate between older and younger boys. Fags are now on the same footing as everyone else. They may use any of the rears. They may leave their study doors open. They may talk in the corridors and changing rooms and washrooms. But please, that isn’t a licence for indiscipline and unbridled noise.”

That prompted another burst of fairly unbridled applause.

“Because, as I said, we’re a community, and communities only work properly if everyone respects everyone else. We trust you to be responsible. That’s what lies behind everything I’ve been saying. Respect. Trust. Responsibility. And if you are irresponsible or inconsiderate, remember that the pollies do still have the power to punish. Though we hope we don’t have to use it much. Or at all.”

“What about bimming?” someone called.

“We will not bim, I promise you. But apart from that, none of this is set in stone. We’re feeling our way. We may have to tweak things before we get them right. We’ll be guided by experience, and we’ll be guided by you. If you think we’re going too far, or not far enough, tell us. Any of us, anywhere, any time, about anything. Please. We need to hear what you think, what you want. After all, it is your house.

“Now it’s late and we’re all shagged out.”

A few of the new boys looked startled. Oh, of course. They couldn’t know that that was simply our way of saying ‘knackered.’

“At least I am. So I’m not throwing it open for discussion here and now. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions, bring them up to the dorm and we’ll listen. It’s our job to listen. I know we’re setting our sights high. You may think we’re aiming for utopia. Yes, we are. We’ll never make a perfect utopia, of course, but we can have a damn good try. Provided we all work together as a community.

“Which brings me back to where I started. To underline our togetherness as a community, I’d like to welcome — I’d like all of us to welcome — the new boys individually. After all, they’re the new citizens of our utopia. I’ll tell you their names, and then I’d like you to shake their hands. When that’s done, straight up to bed.”

I got the new boys to stand in line and stopped in front of each in turn, calling out his name and shaking his hand. “Martin Bye, welcome to MacNair’s. Emrys Cadwalader, welcome …” As I reached the end of the line, Andrew and the pollies followed. So did everyone else.

“And now your arms’ll be aching for days,” I told the new boys when it was over. “You all know where to go? Right, up to the dorm, then. I’ll see you there.”

But first I got Andrew into his study. “Whew!” I leaned against the door and closed my eyes in relief.

“Whew indeed. This night’ll go down in history, ocelle. You were brilliant. As I knew you would be.”

“It’s Wally who was brilliant. He didn’t raise any objections at all. If only it could all be as easy as that … “

It had been a long, long day and I had expended a lot of nervous energy. We had a hug. Recharged, I went up to the New Dorm, where I had graduated to Spud’s former tish. Nick, I found, was pleased with his introduction to the choir. Emrys was chattering in Welsh with Buv, who had taken over my old tish. The other new boys seemed happy. Further along, the old hands were positively bubbling with high spirits. Bob beckoned me close.

“You were right, Leon,” he said quietly. “It did take time. But it was worth waiting for. And I was right too. Godot really has come.”