The library at Fonthill Preparatory School was just what I imagined a Gentlemen’s Club to be like: shiny brown leather armchairs with velvet cushions, long oak tables, panelled walls, a coal fire in the corner, and windows looking on to the branches of an enormous beech tree. And, of course, books. It was there that I came to know the schoolboy classics of the time: the adventures of Biggles, the misadventures of William, and the voyages of the Swallows and the Amazons.
Masters would occasionally wander in and out, and it was not until years later that I realized they were not only doing their duty rounds but also guiding young readers to other authors: ‘Have you tried this one? Or this one?’ Why else would I have bothered to pick out those shabby, dog-eared old volumes? But the people and places discovered in the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, G. A. Henty, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Rider Haggard, Talbot Baines Reed and many others became part of my world as the wintry wind rattled the windows and the fire sank into glowing embers. There were other territories to explore as well: huge red volumes of Chums and The Boys’ Own Paper, crammed with cricketing heroes and gallant midshipmen; leather-bound copies of the Illustrated London News sprinkled with strategic maps of the Battle of the Somme; dozens of volumes of Punch decorated with the cartoons of George du Maurier, with brief explanations for those who did not get the joke – Collapse of stout party!
There were more recent heroes to read about as well. We were born in the Blitz and we grew up with gas masks: we had no doubts about 90 the rightness of our cause. Most of our schoolmasters had served in the armed forces, although they did not talk about it much, and titles such as Major and Wing-Commander were only attached to their names for a few solemn minutes on Armistice Day. The classic war stories were beginning to appear, and we identified with the real-life heroes of The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky and The Wooden Horse, and their fictional counterparts in The Cruel Sea (only permitted in the bowdlerized ‘Cadet Edition’ with the swear words and sexual references prudently purged).
But it was in the form-rooms that I began to appreciate the sounds and rhythms of language: not, at first, in English classes, but up several flights of stairs in Mr Storey’s cluttered little kingdom. Jammed uncomfortably into ink-stained and battle-scarred desks we were introduced to the intricacies of Latin grammar using, as generations of schoolboys had done before, Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer, first published in 1866. It must be one of the few books in which the Appendix is better remembered than the actual content, because it is there that are found the ‘Memorial Lines on the Gender of Latin Substantives’. These were universally known as ‘The Jingles’, so we missed the mild Victorian pun in the original title. We were required to learn them by heart because (as the Reverend Benjamin Kennedy wisely realized) although learning the rules of grammar is inevitably tedious, the process can be eased by rhythm and verse:
Masculine are fōns and mōns,
Chalybs, hydrōps, gryps, and pōns,
Rudēns, torrēns, dēns, and cliēns,
Fractions of the ās, as triēns . . .
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron, boil and bake . . .
The last two lines may have been written by somebody else. That does not matter. They are all memorable, and they made me aware that words are not just there to tell a story but can speak for themselves.
Our English master, Mr Stawt, was clearly of that mind, as he introduced us to poetry through verses that appealed to schoolboys who would much rather be running around outdoors. We learned not sonnets or haikus, but poems which cantered and galloped in our heads, like those of Sir Walter Scott:
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