The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

8. To spare the humbled

Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

Pay heed, Roman, to ruling the nations under your sway. This shall be your special skill, to impose the way of peace, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.

Virgil, Aeneid

Over breakfast we pooled the feedback. From the New Dorm, none, other than delight. From the other dorms, general approval. A few older boys were not entirely happy that, if and when they became pollies, they would be denied the services of fags. But theirs was mild disappointment, not hostility. Spud’s tyranny had been so universally detested that reforms — any reforms — were much more palatable than if his rule had been benign.

I had cleared it with Steve to have the day off, and I spent it partly on routine work. I drew up the new and minimalist fagging rotas. I went to the printing shop to order house lists, with first names. I compiled the school pollies’ duty roster. I started to allocate rooms for society meetings and the like, for which the captain of the school acted as clearing house. Andrew conferred with me about house teams and matches.

Less routinely, I had a long chin-wag with the school porter, that unsung but indispensable official who laboured from dawn till dusk while remaining cheerful and universally helpful, and without whom the school would instantly cease to tick. I would be seeing a lot of him, and he of me, and we needed to get to know each other. I went to Matthews’ to talk with Kenneth Farmer, who was next in seniority after Andrew. Hitherto I had hardly known him, but his letter about the Pollies’ Ball suggested that his thinking coincided with ours. So it proved. He promised to help in any way he could, and became a stalwart ally.

I also spent some time planning the evening and rehearsing what I wanted to say. At half past six, my heart beating very much faster than usual, I presented myself at School House. I was here to propose change, which could all too easily be taken as criticism. Indeed it was criticism of existing practice: I had to avoid it sounding like personal criticism of the HM and the staff. But my session with Wally had heartened me, and if the HM verged on the ponderous, Mrs Vaughan was full of laughter. Both called me Leon. The HM, noticing my surprise, explained that he used surnames when talking to boys formally, but first names socially. I had never met him socially before. That, and two social glasses of wine, helped to calm my jangling nerves. After a brisk meal Mrs Vaughan tactfully left us to ourselves, and the HM invited me to say my say. I started off by hesitantly expounding my philosophy.

“I’m not plotting revolution, sir, only reform. Civilised reform, I hope. I’m certainly not after bloodshed, even metaphorical. Yet the rallying-cry of the French Revolution isn’t inappropriate. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Liberty is a relative word. At the moment the fags are relatively in slavery, and I feel it’s time they were freed.” I expanded on that theme, and need not repeat here what I have said before. Once I got into my stride, I found, words flowed more smoothly.

“Equality and fraternity are part of the same process. In many cases, as things are, younger boys go more in awe of the pollies than they do of the staff. It would be a juster and fairer society, it seems to me, if they saw older boys not as lords and masters but more like big brothers, and not Big Brothers in the Orwellian sense.”

I expanded on that theme as well; and on the end of bimming at MacNair’s and my hope that it would end elsewhere; and on the need, as I saw it, for a school council, for a review of school rules, for greater consideration to scholarship candidates, for a refurnished school pollies’ room, and for an improved and revitalised buttery complete with a bar. At this point I lifted my glass of wine: “You trust us in your hospitable house, sir. Will you trust us by ourselves?” Again it would be tedious to repeat all the details. I had come prepared, and gave him a typed list of where I thought change was needed.

“Overall, sir,” I ended, “I’d much rather work by persuasion and consent than by compulsion. But I’m worried that if different houses take different routes on things like fagging they’ll diverge even more than they do now. Is that permissible?”

The HM, disconcertingly, had heard me through without a single interruption, even when I had paused in expectation. Now he cast a rapid eye down my list and laid it to one side.

“You are quite right, Leon, about persuasion and consent. I would rather avoid legislation altogether. On matters such as fagging and beating, MacNair’s has already taken the lead. Use your powers of persuasion, of course, to get other houses to follow that lead; but let them go their own way, should they so desire it. Once a majority is moving in your direction, there will be moral pressure on the rest to follow. But these things can not be hurried. See how they stand at the end of this term before taking any more drastic action.

“Now, on the other matters you raise.” He did not even refer to my list. “A school council — draw up a draft constitution and let me see it. School rules — you and I shall put our heads together and revise them. Scholarship candidates — I take your point; leave that to me. The school pollies’ room and the buttery — you and the bursar and I shall inspect them and discuss improvements. And yes, I hope that before too long we three shall meet again to, ah, discuss a pint of beer together in the bar.

“I have no objection in principle to any of your proposals. Are the school pollies aware of them yet?”

“In detail, only Andrew and Kenneth. Other house captains know merely the outline. Tomorrow we're having a meeting to chew it all over.”

“Good luck to you, then, Leon. And thank you.”

I went back to the house elated but dazed, and with a considerable sense of anticlimax. After prayers I told Andrew about it. “It’s all been too easy, so far,” I said unbelievingly. “There’s bound to be opposition at the next stage.”

There was. The following day the school pollies assembled, in the cheek-by-jowl discomfort of our own room, for the crucial discussion. All were aware of the direction which MacNair’s was already taking, but few knew the full extent of my ambitions. Some of them looked at me suspiciously, as if I were a weird evangelist preaching an impractical gospel of hot air, and I was by no means at ease. But I was strengthened by Andrew and Kenneth who were sitting on either side of me.

Following Kenneth’s advice, I started with the icing on the cake. I gave notice of the Pollies’ Ball, duly blessed by authority, its organisation already in hand. That made the doubters sit up and take notice; only Kenneth and Andrew had known about it. I reported that the HM had given outline approval to upgrading not only the room we were in — I twanged a projecting chair spring which was threatening to impale my thigh — but also the buttery; and that he had no personal objection to the buttery selling alcohol to over-eighteens. Only Andrew had known about that, and I saw mouths drop open and more opinions being rapidly revised. The atmosphere was thawing.

On the subject of democracy, I asked if people approved of the idea of a school council. They did, some with enthusiasm, some more lukewarmly. Suggestions were made about who should sit on it and how it should be run, which I noted for my draft. No great problem there.

The next topic was the most contentious, and I glanced at Andrew to renew my courage. Sure enough, it generated the most argument. Opinions on the abolition of fagging ranged over the whole spectrum from outright acceptance to outright rejection. Those who rejected it, while happy to accept new plums like the ball and the bar, seemed stubbornly reluctant to give up old privileges. We talked about it for a while with no consensus and no overall meeting of minds.

“This isn’t something to be decided here and now,” I summed up. “It needs thought, it needs information, it needs consultation. We all have our own systems, which differ at least in detail. We know how our own houses tick, but not how others do — we rarely go to other houses, and not for long. For myself, I’d like to know more. Would it help if we visited each others’ houses for longer periods, say from tea until lights out, when we could see them in action, talk to people, and pick up ideas? I know I’d learn a lot.”

There was majority agreement on that, though a handful, curiously protectionist, seemed to envisage such visitors as spies. There we left it: that house captains would try to inform themselves better and would discuss everything with their pollies.

The meeting had not gone disastrously. There was indeed opposition, but not so much as I had feared, and I now knew exactly where it was strongest and what it was based on.

With that meeting, the overture to my reign was completed. The action now began in a simultaneous series of plots and sub-plots, which it will be simpler to deal with one by one rather than to follow a chronological order. What astonished me, in all of them, was how co-operative nearly everyone was (with exceptions to be recounted), from the top of the school to the bottom. With the majority, the reforms seemed to be waiting, ready-approved, to be put into effect. ‘You may well find you are sowing on fertile ground,’ the rector had observed. How right he was. Without that fundamental and ready consent, the Crusade would have come to nothing.


The most straightforward of the plots, as the term unfolded, concerned MacNair’s. Here there were three practical innovations. The first was not of my doing. Hitherto there had been no fire precautions whatever. Had a fire broken out, the boys would have had to rely on mother wit to escape. It was something we never thought about; one doesn’t, at that age. But during the holidays extinguishers for tackling small blazes had been stationed around the premises, alarms installed, and some strategic doors replaced with fire-resistant ones. There was more work to be done, but a start had been made.

The local fire officer came and spelled out the drill to everyone. If you spot a fire, set off the nearest alarm. If you hear the alarm, clear out, assembling on Wally’s lawn. Easy by day, the studies being on the ground floor. By night the dorm pollies should steer their boys downstairs. Wally, with the only phone in the house, should call the fire brigade. The gas and electricity should be turned off, and the pollies were shown where the mains cock and isolation switches were. Practice runs went fairly smoothly.

The next innovation was the music room. Wally received the idea with approval, the boys with enthusiasm. I put the job of converting the box room into the capable hands of Buv, who was a craftsman of some skill. He measured and sketched and calculated, and after prayers one night laid his designs before the house for criticism. He appealed for volunteers — emphatically not conscripted fags — and specified the labour required — porters to move the trunks out, cleaners, painters, carpenters, someone with a willing mother to whom the upholstery could be subcontracted, an expert on record players to advise on a good model.

“I think that’s the lot,” he said, “though there may be some points I’ve missed, as the monkey said when he fell over the hedgehog. Except that we’ve got to pay for this.”

He estimated that a pound a head would meet the bulk of the cost, and Wally had offered to cover any shortfall within reason. Since a pound would make a substantial hole in most people’s pocket money, Buv asked everyone to pass the begging bowl to their parents. In the event some parents coughed up well over the odds, and finances proved no problem. Before long Buv was delightedly jingling his tin full of coins and notes.

“Look!” he cried. “I’ve come into the money.”

“As the monkey said,” supplied Good, “when it wanked in the bank vault.”

Having neither practical skills nor much time, I took no part in the conversion myself, but was sometimes drawn by the sound of sawing or drilling to watch the fitted benches taking shape or the curtain rails going up. It was also a pleasure to listen to Buv’s handling of his labour force.

“Yes, that poster’s fine there, Nick, but it’s not quite vertical, is it? It’s the Empire State Building, not the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Hey, Ben, would you mind not sanding while Tom’s varnishing, please? The dust’ll stick to the varnish and give it goose-pimples. And Tom, not too much on the brush at a time, or it’ll dribble. A little goes a long way, as the monkey said as he piddled over the precipice.”

By late October everything was ready for the opening ceremony. The benches seated sixteen in intimate closeness, another sixteen squeezed in on the floor, and the rest of the house filled the corridor outside. Since the original idea had been Andrew’s, he did the honours by lowering the needle on to the first record. This was the current top of the charts, Cliff Richard, Please don’t tease. Oh dear, no accounting for tastes. But I kept my mouth shut. The music room belonged to the house, not to toffee-nosed Leon, and soon it was heavily used.

The final novelty was that I asked Hez to overhaul the house library, an inflated name for the motley collection of dog-eared paperbacks and ancient and unreadable hardbacks which lived in the billiard room. Most of them he threw out and replaced with a more attractive selection — pass-me-ons from boys, duplicates from the school library, and new ones paid for from a new source of funding. This involved the modest budget we had for buying newspapers and magazines. Many of these languished unread in the rack in the billiard room because, for all my time at MacNair’s and probably for generations, the selection had been the same and nobody had ever thought to ask what people actually wanted. We now put it to popular vote, and the result was interesting.

By a large majority the Telegraph and Express were replaced by the Times and Guardian. Of the old weeklies, only Punch and the Illustrated London News survived. Out went the snooty Tatler, Field and Country Life, which cost 6/6 a week between them. In came the Listener, Times Literary Supplement, New Scientist, Eagle (by no means only for the youngsters) and Tit-Bits, which cost 2/8½ between them. They found many more readers, and the difference in price was spent on books. Tit-Bits worried me a little: not its titillating content of boobs and bums (which admittedly were not my scene) but the fact that papers and magazines were delivered to the private side and Wally handed them over to us. But he never said a word about it.


The second of the plots involved me in much more time and thought, but in little tribulation. Creating the new music room with in-house labour was one thing; the buttery was on an altogether different scale. I had a long session there with the HM and the bursar, inspecting the dingy building with its flaking paint, battered hard-arse chairs, tatty formica-topped tables, and lino worn into holes. Small wonder that custom had dropped off and it barely covered costs. They agreed that a face-lift was long overdue, and suggested I form a small committee of boys to specify what, within reason, we would like. The outlay, which the bursar guessed would run to several thousand pounds, would have to be approved by the governors. So too would the revolutionary suggestion of a bar; but enquiries had shown no legal obstacle to obtaining a private licence.

How best to create a committee? I was not so starry-eyed a democrat as to insist on an election. It should comprise, I reckoned, myself and three others of different ages and from different houses, drawn at random from existing customers. To pick them, I decided to drop in three times and grab, so to speak, the first boy I saw who qualified.

My first catch was a pimply fifteen-year-old with thick glasses who was stuffing his face with a bun and reading Trains Illustrated. I knew him by repute, Puffer Anderson, who could tell you, if you really wanted to know, what time the first train left Far Tottering for Oystercreek on Sundays in 1927. Ah well, it takes all sorts. I stopped in front of him.

“Puffer, would you like a more comfortable chair and a better selection of buns?”

“You bet,” he mumbled through his bun.

“Then join our committee and have your say.”

“Why me?”

“Why not?”


Next day I caught Adrian Mallalieu, who was holding forth to his cronies about the pre-Raphaelites. He was seventeen, an artist and an aesthete who, apart from his uniform and his haircut, might himself have strayed out of a Rossetti painting. He was feeding rather more elegantly than Puffer, and rather more elegantly accepted my invitation.

The third day I did not even have to go in. It was raining cats and dogs, and at the buttery door a youngster I did not know was waiting forlornly for it to stop. I offered him a share of my brolly back to his house. His name was Jacob French, he told me as we went, in his second term, and by the time I delivered him to Fanshawe’s, grateful and relatively dry, my committee was complete.

Although the four of us had virtually nothing in common, we worked together remarkably well, once Puffer and Jacob were convinced that they were taken seriously. The buttery comprised a number of rooms, some of which had been closed off as custom declined, and we wanted to open the whole lot up by tearing down party walls. Built on a steep slope stepping down from the main school, it adjoined the flat roof of the music school below, which we saw as a perfect sitting-out area for fine weather. For the bar, we chose a large room across the corridor.

We ransacked catalogues for suitable chairs and tables and made suggestions for carpets and curtains. Adrian offered to find pictures for the walls. Puffer offered something altogether less usual. Thirty years before, the Southern Railway had assigned the name of Yarborough to one of its new Schools class of locomotives. The then headmaster, who had a phobia of publicity, had forbidden it. But one of the unused nameplates had found its way to the school’s Railway Society, a curved chunk of brass four feet long and weighing a hundredweight. We reserved for it the place of honour on the largest wall.

Plans and artist’s impressions — by Adrian — went on public display, along with the much enlarged bill of fare that we proposed, and we took on board the comments which came back to us. The bursar costed our final proposals, and in November the HM put the request to the governors’ meeting. The notion of selling alcohol, he reported, took far longer to approve than the capital outlay, but he won the day. The bursar set about letting the contracts. The alterations could not be done in term-time and would have to wait until the Easter holidays. We were none the less well satisfied with progress.

The bursar and HM had also agreed that the school pollies’ room was a disgrace. But before anything could be done about refurnishing it, Kenneth commented, on seeing the plans for the buttery, “The less segregation the better. If the bar’s going to be that large and that comfortable, why do we need a separate pollies’ room?” Why indeed? The rest agreed, and the bursar was only too happy to convert our old room into extra office space.


Such nuts and bolts of school organisation seemed all-important at the time, but will become increasingly boring to the reader who was not there. Suffice it to say, apropos the third plot, that I spent a great deal of time establishing the school council, talking to all and sundry about its membership, elections and meetings, drafting and redrafting, getting approval from everyone from the HM down. It was finally set up, under my chairmanship, with two boys elected from each house. It received suggestions from the whole school, mulled them over and, if it approved, passed them on with recommendations to such authorities as the HM or the bursar or the master in charge of games. They in turn used the council as a sounding board for proposals of their own. It took time to find its feet, but it had great promise.

The HM and I, putting our heads together over the school rulebook, amicably amended and updated it. A number of rules, such as that on sewn-up pockets, went out of the window without public debate. Here I was willing to be benevolently dictatorial and to shelter behind the HM’s authority.

I announced that I would be available for anyone to talk to about anything, every weekday at half past twelve in the colonnade. This was a chore, as expected, but a useful chore. Some days I had several customers, some days I had none. Many of the matters raised were quite trivial, but hitherto there had been nobody to report them to: that there was a pothole in the quad which made a deep puddle when it rained, that a loose screw on a classroom door handle took the skin off your knuckles. I soon discovered which of the maintenance staff to tip off to do the needful.

Sometimes there were suggestions too minor for the council but yet well worth while, such as an inter-house postal system for non-urgent messages. This, when established, further reduced the need for fags, and proved very useful to me as librarian for distributing reminders. Occasionally people complained about individuals. If about a boy in the same house, I washed my hands of it — that was a matter for the captain of the house, not of the school. If about someone in a different house, it called for diplomacy.

The whole process, while time-consuming and entirely contrary to my retiring instincts, I found highly educational.


It was the fourth plot which proved the most agonising. My motive in suggesting that house captains visit other houses was to persuade by example rather than by preaching. Most of them did visit most houses, for hours at a time. This was a startling innovation in itself. Hitherto, one never missed a meal or prayers in one’s own house, unless one was sick, or out with one’s parents, or playing in a match. One never, ever, ate or attended prayers in another house. But I had cleared it with the HM, and he had cleared it with the housemasters.

I had said that I would learn a lot from the process. So I did, but it was largely negative knowledge. I picked up a few minor tips about how things were done elsewhere, but talking to pollies and non-fags and fags over tea and in the dorms usually revealed a regime more severe and a climate less contented than in MacNair’s. I looked and listened and asked, but I was careful not to preach. Sometimes, as I wandered round other houses, I was chaperoned; not with any ulterior motive, but I suspected that the presence of authority made the boys less frank in what they told me.

In turn, other house captains visited us. This, though I did not admit it publicly, was the primary purpose of the exercise. I asked my pollies not to chaperone them. So I do not know exactly what our visitors were told; but they all seemed impressed as they left. The esprit de corps in MacNair’s was marvellous, and I was hugely proud of my flock.

Another tool that proved useful was the Nettleship Society. This was a civilised discussion group of senior boys which met fortnightly either in Creepy Mollington’s house — he was head of biology — or in Steve’s. Both presided benignly as, over sherry and coffee, one of us read a short paper on some moral or social question which was then thrown open for discussion. Capital punishment had been one recent topic, prostitution and communism had been others. Now Kenneth, whose heart was firmly in the right place, led a discussion on social justice.

He made a powerful case. “Remember,” he said at one point, “the philosophy behind the Welfare State. The guiding principle of Lord Beveridge, its main architect, was this: ‘the object of government in peace and war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but the happiness of the common man.’

“Look at the set-up here in school. A mini-state, with its own government and its own common man. We’re thrown together more or less by chance. We don’t choose each other as companions. That’s the challenge. But we all have something to contribute, something that deserves respect. We’re here to build our lives together as decent human beings, coexisting in a decent society. As equal a society as possible, without the master and servant mentality. There’s a nice passage in Macaulay about

the proposition that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. That maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim. If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait for ever.

Isn’t the common man happier and better off in liberty than in slavery?”

The discussion, for the most part, supported Kenneth. I contributed little. All to the good if others did my arguing for me.

As far as I could see, not a single housemaster made any attempt to influence his boys one way or the other. As for me, it would have been quite wrong to interfere directly in the internal affairs of other houses. The decision over whether to abolish fagging lay entirely in the hands of the house pollies, and especially of the house captains.

They might be influenced by rational argument, or by conscience, or by example. They might also be influenced by public opinion. This was ranged, almost entirely, in our favour; not surprisingly among the fags, rather more unexpectedly in the older age-group. That MacNair’s had officially dispensed with all but a vestige of fagging became a nine-day wonder. MacNair’s boys were besieged with questions about our new regime and, with their new esprit de corps, were the best evangelists I could have wished for in propagating our gospel. I did not prompt them; they did it of their own accord. The pressure to follow our example built up in other houses.

When term began, Yarborough comprised one emancipated republic and eleven fortresses of fagging. Kenneth at Matthews’ and, equally liberal, the captains of Hodgson’s and Croft’s needed no persuading, and quite easily swung their pollies behind them. Within a few days all had joined MacNair’s. So far so good: a third of the school was converted already.

The next month was nerve-racking as other houses dithered. In some cases their captains were radical but were held back by conservative pollies. Sometimes it was the other way round. After a long and agonising interval, School House surrendered, and then on the same day Hamilton’s and Kirk’s. We were past the half-way mark now, and from this point on, as the HM had foreseen, public opinion swung still further and the moral pressure piled up.

I myself played little direct part. All the persuasion was done by our own ambassadors and, increasingly, by the newly-converted. Several captains, seeing how morale in their houses had improved once fagging had gone, went out of their way to thank MacNair’s for setting the example. More importantly, they increased the pressure on the more obdurate. But, though not at the battlefront, I suffered all the agonies of the general back in headquarters, biting my nails as news of the campaign filtered in on the grapevine. I was tempted to pin up a chart on my wall to show the state of play, but feared that it would look too confrontational.

The second month I spent on even more painful tenterhooks as the more traditionalist captains continued to resist. But even they were under constant pressure from their pollies and from their boys. Quite suddenly, in a bunch, Petersen’s, Burton’s, Rush’s and Ellis’s gave way, and by the end of November only one house held out.

Arnold Casterton of Fanshawe’s seemed old beyond his years. His face would have fitted well beneath an eighteenth-century wig, and his sharp nose and sharp chin had earned him the nickname of Spike. He was a reactionary but not, as Spud had been, an uncouth reactionary. He was urbane and intelligent, a member almost of the ancien régime. Fagging, to him, was a practice blessed by time, a tradition which had proved its worth, a reflection of the hallowed class system in which everyone knew his place, a mirror of society as it should be. Pollies were by definition aristocrats, and aristocrats deserved service.

Spike’s house was his castle. He would admit no spies to Fanshawe’s, and he inspected no other house. Although he did not have the support of his deputy, Roger Baines, he was not a one-man band, for two of his pollies were behind him. These three remained adamant that Fanshawe’s would not follow the majority.

Term therefore ended with a dilemma. Fanshawe’s apart, everything else was on course. ‘See how things stand at the end of this term before taking any more drastic action,’ the HM had told me. Yet he was as much in favour of persuasion and consent as I was, and, short of a decree from on high, what action could be taken? At the beginning of next term I would have to confer with him again. I said as much to Andrew.

“Didn’t he say that houses should be allowed to go their own way,” he asked, “if they wanted to?”

“Yes, he did. Which is fair enough. And Fanshawe’s is pretty well bound to give up fagging in July when Spike & Co leave. It just seems sad that Yarborough can’t go the whole hog sooner.”

“Don’t give up hope, my soul. Everyone else has found your reforms irresistible.”

“Well, what does happen if an irresistible force meets an immovable object?”

“That’s not a meaningful question. It’s a contradiction in terms. If Spike is immovable, your force is not irresistible. If it is irresistible, he’s not immovable. We’ll just have to wait and see which is true.”