Bored with studying, the schoolboy put aside his books and submitted to his love of writing poetry. He was aware his effort was inadequate, but he was unprepared for the verdict of an unseen witness at his shoulder. ‘You shouldn’t waste your sweetness on the desert air like this, Auden,’ said the master who, in the way of his kind, had silkily materialized when least expected and least wanted. Years after the event at Gresham’s School, a still furious WH wrote: ‘Today, I cannot think of him without wishing him evil.’
This entertaining vignette, typifying the world-weary teacher confronted by the apparently idle enthusiasms of youth – and made more amusing by the identity of the victim – is recalled in The Old School, a collection of classroom memories edited by Graham Greene and published in 1934 when he was 30.
Few experiences remain so solidly imprinted on the mind as those of school. Youthful friends and enemies tend to be remembered for life, along with ancient episodes of teasing and bullying, indiscipline and eccentricity. To this day I cannot recall without a shudder dismal winter afternoons spent in fruitless quest of a soggy ball. I am still amazed at the sheer sadism of a teacher whose brutally enthusiastic use of the cane would today have him in the dock. And the memory of a Latin teacher, baited beyond endurance, bringing down on the head of his young tormentor a weighty classical dictionary, thereby inducing moderate concussion, lives with me still. Yet though school dominates childhood it often makes only a brief appearance in biography or autobiography. This is a pity. The dramas of school may in themselves be minor, but in their variety of experience they provide a fertile soil of recollection.
The Old School is made up of seventeen essays by writers who achieved literary distinction later in life, though some are all but forgotten today. Apart from Auden, still familiar names include Harold Nicolson,
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