The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

10. Take the current

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune …
On such a full sea are we now afloat
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Julian returned to us when the Lent term was less than a week old. But even before then a major crisis had blown up and had been defused.

The very first evening, while we were welcoming MacNair’s boys in the arctic chill of the archway, Spike Casterton appeared out of the darkness and demanded to speak to me alone. I led him to my study, but he would not take a seat. He was white with anger. He had returned to Fanshawe’s to find, waiting for him on his desk, a round robin signed by all his fags. I never saw the original, but the message, I gathered, was a straightforward notice of mutiny. They would no longer answer fag calls or carry out duties beyond those normal in other houses. Spike had already conferred with Josh Fanshawe, his housemaster, and had already swallowed the bitter pill that his authority was broken. If half his house refused to obey, he could not lash them into obedience.

One half of me exulted. The last remaining worms, as Spud would have said, had turned. My main ambition was achieved. Fagging at Yarborough, in the traditional sense, was now dead.

The other half of me was appalled. Spike assumed that I had used underhand means to complete my programme. He took it for granted that I had incited the mutiny. In vain I protested that, while I had indeed tried (and failed) to persuade from above, I had not fomented rebellion from below, that I would never actively meddle in the internal politics of another house, that I knew nothing about it. He simply did not believe me, and it is notoriously difficult to prove a negative.

He departed, cold and abrupt, leaving an exceedingly sour taste in my mouth. Over tea I told the other pollies. They believed in me, bless them, but there was little they, or I, could do to prove my innocence. I hardly slept that night. Next day was worse. People who had been friends looked at me sideways. Some even said “Leon, I didn’t think you’d stoop to that.” Spike was clearly broadcasting poison, and it hurt to the quick.

Just before lunch I was agonising in my study, with Andrew quite literally holding my hand, when Bob Freshwater knocked at the door.

“Leon,” he said. “I’ve heard what people are saying, and it’s all wrong. I know who the ringleaders are in Fanshawe’s. Last term they asked me how Spud had fallen off his pedestal here, because they wanted to push Spike Casterton off his. I told them. I deliberately didn’t tell you about it, because if you didn’t know you couldn’t be accused of encouraging them. But you are being accused. It’s totally unfair. So I’ve just been round to see them, and they’ve promised to do something about it.”

Sure enough, as people came out of afternoon lessons they found a notice pinned up on the school board. It was another round robin signed by all the Fanshawe’s fags, and it stated categorically that they had not spoken to me about their plans. As far as they knew I was totally ignorant of them. Their rebellion was a purely internal affair, and it was quite unfair to accuse me of incitement. I spent a much better night.

Breakfast was hardly over next morning when Spike was round to see me again. This time he did sit down.

“I’m sorry, Leon. I leapt to unjustified conclusions. I withdraw everything I said. I’m on my way to put up a notice to that effect.” He showed it to me, an unqualified apology. “Your policy still seems to me misguided, but I’m obviously in a tiny minority.” He laughed shortly and bitterly. “Après nous le déluge. Roger Baines is taking over. He’s on your side, as you know. The two pollies who’ve so far supported me have thrown in the towel and will work with Roger. Your victory is now complete, and I can only congratulate you.”

“What on earth do you mean? That you’re giving up the captaincy?”

“More than that. I’m leaving. Today. There’s no alternative. The ground’s been cut from under my feet. Good bye, Leon, and good luck.”

Dumbfounded, I shook the hand he held out and, before I could say I was sorry or wish him well, he was gone. A few minutes later Andrew looked in and found me in tears.

After Assembly I was with Steve, much too distressed to think about Catullus and hendecasyllables.

“I wanted reform,” I lamented, “not revolution. Not heads rolling.”

“You brought about peaceful reform, Leon, in eleven-twelfths of the school. The other twelfth has revolted because its government was intransigent. People-power has flexed its muscles. But the tumbrels and the guillotine don’t come into it. Arnold Casterton’s head has not rolled. He may have gone into exile, but it’s self-imposed exile. There’s plenty of historical precedent for that, among conservatives who cannot stomach liberal new regimes. And the other way round. Don’t think of him as a victim. Think of him as an opponent who has lost a fair fight and honourably retired.”

I hesitantly sought out Josh Fanshawe, fearful that he would hold the loss of his house captain against me. But no.

“Arnold was following his conscience, and for that reason I supported him as far as I felt able. But it has long been clear that he was fighting a rearguard action, and I respect him for deciding to leave. It was the best solution for the house, and the best for the school. Indeed the only solution. The house is happy now, and it can move forward again. Don’t think of blaming yourself, Michaelson. Quite the reverse. I am grateful to you.”

That afternoon I had to see the HM on a different matter, and found him equally unperturbed.

“Of course I do not like losing boys. I did not like it when two boys, you will remember, were withdrawn by their parents following, ah, our acceptance of your love. But there is no truer proverb than the one about omelettes and eggs. All change has its price, even change from worse to better. You know that I support the changes you have been bringing about. They are emphatically changes from worse to better, and a casualty list of one seems a remarkably small price for the school to pay.”

I ended up back with Andrew, telling him of these reactions. “But a boy has left Yarborough because of me. I hate it.”

“Of course you do, ocelle, because that’s the sort of person you are. But you’re the driver of the Yarborough bus. Everyone else liked the direction you were driving in, but Spike didn’t. He had a choice, either to stay on board and lump it, or to get off. He got off. He chose to get off. You didn’t push him. Remember last summer how Tim Reynolds pulled out of the First XI because he didn’t agree with my style of captaining? That was sad too, but I couldn’t change it just for him. We have to stand up for what we believe in.”

He was right, of course, though it was hard to come to terms with. It was one of the inevitable unpleasantnesses of leading. I wished I had found some way of handling it better. But Spike’s public apology swung people behind me again. Roger Baines did what Spike had refused to do, and came to see how MacNair’s worked. As a result, Fanshawe’s moved into line with the rest of the school.

Thus, with little effort on my part, all my reforms were now in place or, like the buttery alterations, were on their way. It was mind-blowing. I had been in the job for only a term and a few days, and others had done the donkey-work for me. There seemed nothing left to do, except to reinforce this new order and consolidate it against backwash and erosion.

The day after Spike left I was again with Steve.

“You probably didn’t know this, Leon. I hope you didn’t. But I can tell you now. Last term Mr Petersen opened a book on how long it would take before fagging was abolished throughout the school, and almost every member of the senior common room laid a bet.”

Good God! Steve seemed particularly cheerful today, and I drew a conclusion.

“And you won, sir?” I was grinning broadly.

“I did. Well, Mr MacNair and the HM did too. All three of us put our money on it taking one term. Mr Petersen was reluctant to pay up on the ground that it took just over a term. We argued that you launched your campaign at your pollies’ meeting on the third day of last term, and that fagging ended with Arnold’s departure on the third day of this one: that it took exactly a term. The dispute went to the rector for arbitration, and he has decided in our favour.”

I hadn’t laughed so hard for months.


February brought freezing winds — we were fond of remarking that nothing lay between us and the Urals — and in their wake came blizzards, more vicious than last year. Yarborough found itself completely cut off from the outside world, and stocks of fresh food ran low. After four days a train managed to batter its way up the branch line and eased the worst supply problem, but every road into the town remained blocked by drifts. Outdoor games were impossible, and so even was fives, for snow on the glass roofs made the courts too dark. Bogtrotting was limited by the number of bogtrots available, and people became restive for lack of recreation.

A couple of days into the crisis I tried out a suggestion on the HM. We had a large army of sturdy labourers, I said. Should we not mobilise it to liberate the town? He jumped at the idea. So did the rural district council. And I, in reward, was landed with the job of organising it all. An appeal went forth for the loan of every shovel in Yarborough. The school timetable was thrown out of the window. Heaving snow is hard labour, and we operated a system of four shifts a day, each consisting of a quarter of the school, working by forms rather than by houses and supervised by school pollies. We concentrated on the main roads east and west.

All the telephone lines were down, but we were kept in touch with the outside world by our handful of ham radio operators, whose skills had never before been held in such esteem. I got them to set up a central radio station and keep us informed of the progress of the county council snowploughs which were carving their laborious way towards us from either side.

Personally, I heaved not a single shovelful. It was strictly forbidden, normally, for boys to drive during term-time, but armed with blessing from on high I requisitioned Wally’s car and, from another master, a set of snow chains, and spent all daylight hours driving myself from one battlefront to the other via the radio station, accompanied by three pollies to push us free when we got stuck. It was an exhausting time but, God help me, an exhilarating one.

My troops co-operated magnificently and enjoyed themselves hugely. Some of the drifts stood twelve feet deep, and the boys dug holes into them down to road level, drove tunnels to link the holes, and collapsed the roofs to shovel the rest out. The day finally came when the great drift at Fryston was defeated and I shook hands with the driver of a bulldozer from Paulbury, who presented me with a bottle of beer. It felt like the joining of the two ends of the transcontinental railroad in Utah in 1869.

Next day we conquered the even deeper drift at the foot of Bardney Hill and met up with a snowplough from Binchester. Yarborough was accessible again. The day after that, by Sod’s Law, a rapid thaw set in. Had we waited a little, nature would have done our work for us. But the exercise had served its purposes; and a few weeks later, at a nice little presentation ceremony in Hall, the chairman of the rural district council handed over an illuminated scroll expressing the townspeople’s gratitude for the school’s efforts.


Nick Marjoram, who was throwing himself into school life with verve, had found a new friend in the house. You often saw him with Peter Stowe these days, much more often than you saw him with Bob, who seemed a little lonely as a result. I was sorry for Bob, as well as grateful for his help over the Fanshawe’s affair, and was mildly disturbed. But it was hardly my business to meddle. People had to make their own friends. Peter was a year older than Nick, a somewhat secretive but swarthily handsome boy, of no particular note except that he was a very fair actor who had made his mark earlier in the term in Look Back in Anger. Nick, who had more than a streak of romanticism, evidently found him a more exotic and stimulating companion than the quietly and solidly decent Bob. I could not agree, but I could understand.

Drama featured almost as large at Yarborough as concerts. In the autumn term there was a Shakespeare produced by the senior English master, and a Gilbert and Sullivan put on by the staff and the town in tandem. In the Lent term there was a more modern play — such as Godot or Look Back in Anger — produced by Brute Armstrong, and something light-hearted done entirely by the boys. In the summer term there was the staff play, in which masters, to great hilarity, assumed unexpected roles. In this case, as in the G&S, female parts were played by their wives or daughters. In all the other productions they were played, in best Elizabethan tradition, by younger boys.

With less now on my plate, I volunteered to produce the light-hearted performance in March. I wanted to do an early Victorian melodrama, and first considered Sweeney Todd. But that required a tipping barber’s chair and a trapdoor for dispatching the victims, which were too technically demanding for my simple production.

Instead I chose Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn, and selfishly bagged for myself the part of the villain. The play was based on a real murder case, a cause célèbre of 1827, and the preface to our acting edition made sober reading. I had paid, it said, the ultimate penalty for my misdeeds. The rope with which I was hanged had been sold at £1 an inch, and my skeleton was preserved to this day in Bury St Edmunds, along with a report of my trial bound in my own skin. Oh well, nice to leave something to posterity.

I plumped for Maria Marten partly because it could be done with a minimum of scenery and stage-hands, and partly because it was so deliciously badly written. It was half-way or more to pantomime, purpose-made for hamming up, and it was great fun. I trained the cast to speak in broad Mummerset accents; all except me, who was a gent. We leered or simpered shamelessly. Except for a few poignant moments, we played it for laughs. The cast of nineteen was drawn from all over the school.

Myself apart, two were from MacNair’s. Nick played Anne Marten, the victim’s sister, who was a chambermaid. Peter Stowe took the role of Tim Bobbin, the archetypal country bumpkin who was after Anne. Most rehearsals took place in school, but for scenes which involved nobody else we three sometimes ran through our lines in the house. One day we found the new music room unoccupied, and commandeered it to rehearse a scene between Tim and Anne which ended in this way:

Tim: Good bye Nan, I be going.
Anne: Well, go on then.
Tim: I say, Nan, you might …
Anne: Might what, you fule?
Tim: Gie I a cherry numble.
Anne: What’s that?
Tim: A knockchops.
Anne: Go on, or I’ll knock they chops.
Tim: I mean a cuss.
Anne: Oh, you wicked chap for cussing me.
Tim: I mean a kiss.
Anne: Can’t you take it, Timmy dear?
Tim: He, he, he!
He is kissing Anne when Mister Marten comes in and takes him off by the ear.

We had no Mister Marten to haul him off, so we stopped there. Anyway, their kissing would not do.

“Look, Peter, you’re a lusty young yokel. Nick’s a winsome wench. Don’t just peck him on the cheek. Go the whole hog. Like they do in the films.” Peter gave me a look which I read as reluctance. “It’s OK. You don’t have to do it for real. Not tongues and all. But pretend you’re doing it. Ham it up. Let’s try that again. From ‘Good bye, Nan’.”

Off they went.

“That’s better. That’s much … ”

Good God! He was doing it for real! Tongue and all. And Nick, after his initial surprise, was giving as good as he got.

“Hey, that’s enough!”

“Sorry,” mumbled Peter. “Got carried away.”

“Sit down.”

They sat down facing me, apprehensive. Lord, what had I unleashed?

“Tell me.”

They looked at each other. “It’s just that we’re in love,” said Nick simply. “I think.”

Peter said nothing.

“Since when?” I asked.

“Well, only this last week, really.”

“And you haven’t …”

No! I told Peter what you told me, and we won’t. Not at school.”

“You’ve got me wrong. I meant, you haven’t talked to Steve?”

“We’re not ready for that,” Peter protested. “We don’t want anyone to know. Not yet.”

I was none too happy with what seemed to be the set-up. “I’m not sure I can give you my blessing until Steve’s given you his.”

“But I’d like to talk to him,” said Nick. “And to you. And to Andrew. Leave it to me, Leon. I’ll twist Peter’s arm.”

I still was not convinced. Arm-twisting did not seem to be a part of love. True, Andrew had twisted mine over the captaincy. But was that the same thing?

I looked at them carefully. “OK. I won’t push you, then …

“Well, let’s get back to Tim and Anne. First time was feeble. Second time was too real. Camp it up. Peter, moan. Nngghh. Nnnggghhh! Nnnngggghhhh! Nick, squeal. This is meant to be burlesque. Go through the motions but don’t even touch mouths. Nick, you stand with your back to the audience so nobody can actually see what’s going on. Or not going on. Right, off you go.”

Yes. That was it. Spot on. Blatantly spoof.

A week later the school took it in the right spirit. Anne and Maria were wolf-whistled. The villain in his stovepipe hat and long sideburns was hissed every time he appeared. It went down a bomb.


Buv and Good and Julian were all leaving, an unusually large exodus for mid-year. Not really needing eight house pollies, we nominated only two replacements: Gareth Griffiths, quite coincidentally another Welshman, and Harry Lavender who had more than a touch of Cockney in his voice and was as chirpy as a London sparrow. Definitely not top-drawer, as Spud would have said. But what the hell did it matter? Variety, as Spud would not have said, is the spice of life.

Beforehand, I had talked about it privately with Andrew. Wally had to have the final say, of course, but if we wanted to be truly democratic, should not pollies be nominated by the house at large rather than by the existing government? No, thought Andrew, because the most popular candidates would be chosen, not necessarily the best ones.

“Well, you’d have been elected,” I said.

“Yes, maybe. But would you? And where would MacNair’s be now, if you hadn’t been? And the school?”

“Better off, if you’d been in charge.”

He sighed.

As usual the HM consulted me over new school pollies. The names he had in mind were all eminently sensible, but I wanted one more.

“Is there any possibility of having Hez Ataya too, sir?”

“That would make three in MacNair’s. I try to avoid too many in one house. I know you had three last summer, but that was quite exceptional. Mayhew was already in post, and you and Goodhart had to be elevated ready for the coming year. What are Ataya’s claims?”

I cast my mind back to four years and a term ago, when Hez and Yarborough had first encountered each other. It was a novel experience on both sides. The school had already been adorned with a few oriental and Indian faces, but never with an African one. The boys, although in general remarkably tolerant, had at first kept Hez at arm’s length because of his very strangeness, and he had taken longer than usual to be assimilated.

On the other side, he was only thirteen, out of his native Kenya for the first time in his life, for the first time without another black face in sight. Yarborough and its boys must have been as outlandish to him as Mars and Martians would be to us. As his tutor, charged with showing him the ropes, I had got to know him well. At first he was terrified almost out of his wits, far more so than most new boys. Although he did not say so, I recognised the symptoms, for I was an expert in such matters. Julian, his study mate, did his best, but he was a new boy too. With Andrew’s active help I tried to smooth Hez’s path. By Christmas he was fully accepted by everyone except the likes of Spud, and he had a standing invitation to spend the holidays with Julian.

Hez’s gentle dignity had impressed me deeply, and still did. He was happy to talk about Africa, but he never said a word about his former life. I did know that his father was a politician. I had actually met him last year, when he was in Britain for the Lancaster House Conference and had visited Hez at Yarborough. A lovely man. But I got the impression that Hez had no mother, and if conversation ever swung towards the Mau Mau atrocities he would clam up. I scented a tragedy somewhere, but there was no way that I could I probe.

Hez had brought a new dimension into our lives. He had proved a wise, a useful and, after a while, a confident member of society. He was active in the choir, in drama (he had been a memorable Othello), and at rugger. He was a sub-librarian of mine. As house polly he was utterly dependable. Ask him to do anything, and his invariable reply was hakuna matata, no problem.

I tried to summarise all this for the HM. “He’s done Yarborough proud, sir,” I ended, “against heavy odds. Far heavier than for ordinary boys. Yarborough’s done a great deal for him too. But there’s still one more thing that it can do. That I think it should do. It owes it to him.”

The HM nodded slowly. “You persuade me. I will check with Mr MacNair to make sure he agrees.”

But no housemaster would turn down the offer of a third school polly. It reflected glory on his house. For the first time Yarborough would see a black face under a white hat.


The Easter holidays passed eventfully for the world. Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, America acquired much egg on its face at the Bay of Pigs, and Sierra Leone became independent.

They passed more uneventfully for us. We had our usual trip to Mediterranean lands. “You’re two thirds of the way through now, my soul,” Andrew observed as we lay together on the beach in Crete, “and everything achieved. All you’ve got to do is coast to the finishing line. Are you happier now?”

“Well, yes. Thanks to you.” I rolled on to my side to face him, and ruminated. “But I’m still not entirely comfortable, you know. There are things from the past that niggle me. Like Spike — I should have handled him better. And for some reason I’m uneasy about the future. OK, we’ll still be together, but three months from now we’ll have left Yarborough, and that’s going to be a dreadful wrench. I can see myself spending a lot of next term thinking ‘This is the last time I’ll ever do such-and-such.’ And I’ve got this odd feeling, too, that there’s business unfinished. I don’t know what. But that there’s a climax to come.”

Although I had not deliberately chosen those words, they put ideas into my head, or into my loins. As my eyes strayed down from his face to his athletic body, sunburn-red mellowing into brown, I felt a stirring in my trunks, and I saw a stirring in his.

“A climax to come,” he repeated softly. “Oh Leon, ocelle, I need one now. This moment.”

Modern Greeks being less broad-minded than their ancient forebears, we dared not even touch hands in public. Towels held strategically in front, we therefore padded back to our hotel where, in our climaxing, we transferred sand from our bodies to the bedclothes. At one point I had to break off.

“Sorry, I’ve got sand under my foreskin.” I investigated. “Dammit, it’s only three or four grains, but I could feel every one of them.”

“Don’t complain. If we weren’t so sensitive down there it wouldn’t be half so good, would it? Now, where were we?”


The summer term also started uneventfully, apart from the launching of the revamped buttery which, over the holidays, had been transformed. We actually postponed the opening ceremony for a couple of days to coincide with Adrian’s eighteenth birthday. The communal part of the premises, much enlarged, redecorated and refurnished, was now vastly more attractive and comfortable than before, and it sold a wider range of food and drinks. The new bar across the corridor was a model of sophistication. Both departments sported darts boards.

The buttery committee insisted that I do the honours. I uncapped free Vimtos and dished out free cakes for Jacob and Puffer. Adrian and I and (at our invitation, for this was our territory) the bursar and the HM then adjourned to the bar where I pulled four pints. With that, the new buttery was in business and, almost immediately, in profit. After the first week the manager reported takings twice the norm for the time of year. I had firmly squashed young Jacob’s suggestion that it be called the Michaelson Centre. It should be an advertisement for group, not for individual, enterprise.

A month into term, Nick came to my study. “I’ve twisted Peter’s arm at last,” he said. “We’re hoping to talk to Steve tomorrow. Or be talked to. I’m a bit scared. But I’ll tell you what happens.”

High time too, I thought. But I did not follow it up. There was a minor outbreak of chicken pox in the school. So far MacNair’s had had no cases, but next day Nick went down with it and was taken out of circulation. He was quite poorly and, to avoid spreading the contagion, was tucked up in the sick-bay with severe restrictions on visiting. I somehow did not feel like questioning Peter about how the interview with Steve had gone.

On one occasion last term, Wally had been away visiting his aged and ailing father. Since his father lived in Inverness it could hardly be a one-day visit, and he had left the house in the care of Brute Armstrong, who carried out all of Wally’s normal duties. The Brute was unmarried, and had moved temporarily from his nearby bungalow to one of Wally’s spare rooms.

Precisely the same happened again when, towards the end of May, Wally’s father died and Wally, all unaware of the storms about to break upon our innocent heads, went north to bury him.