Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter III
|Chapter II|| Autobiography
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter III: How to Be a Dunce
The change from childhood to boyhood, and the mysterious transformation that produces that monster the schoolboy, might be very well summed up in one small fact. To me the ancient capital letters of the Greek alphabet, the great Theta, a sphere barred across the midst like Saturn, or the great Upsilon, standing up like a tall curved chalice, have still a quite unaccountable charm and mystery, as if they were the characters traced in wide welcome over Eden of the dawn. The ordinary small Greek letters, though I am now much more familiar with them, seem to me quite nasty little things like a swarm of gnats. As for Greek accents, I triumphantly succeeded, through a long series of school-terms, in avoiding learning them at all; and I never had a higher moment of gratification than when I afterwards discovered that the Greeks never learnt them either. I felt, with a radiant pride, that I was as ignorant as Plato and Thucydides. At least they were unknown to the Greeks who wrote the prose and poetry that was thought worth studying; and were invented by grammarians, I believe, at the time of the Renaissance. But it is a simple psychological fact; that the sight of a Greek capital still fills me with happiness, the sight of a small letter with indifference tinged with dislike, and the accents with righteous indignation reaching the point of profanity. And I believe that the explanation is that I learnt the large Greek letters, as I learnt the large English letters, at home. I was told about them merely for fun while I was still a child; while the others I learnt during the period of what is commonly called education; that is, the period during which I was being instructed by somebody I did not know, about something I did not want to know.
But I say this merely to show that I was a much wiser and widerminded person at the age of six than at the age of sixteen. I do not base any educational theories upon it, heaven forbid. This work cannot, on some points, avoid being theoretical; but it need not add insult to injury by being educational. I certainly shall not, in the graceful modern manner, turn round and abuse my schoolmasters because I did not choose to learn what they were quite ready to teach. It may be that in the improved schools of today, the child is so taught that he crows aloud with delight at the sight of a Greek accent. But I fear it is much more probable that the new schools have got rid of the Greek accent by getting rid of the Greek. And upon that point, as it happens, I am largely on the side of my schoolmasters against myself. I am very glad that my persistent efforts not to learn Latin were to a certain extent frustrated; and that I was not entirely successful even in escaping the contamination of the language of Aristotle and Demosthenes. At least I know enough Greek to be able to see the joke, when somebody says (as somebody did the other day) that the study of that language is not suited to an age of democracy. I do not know what language he thought democracy came from; and it must be admitted that the word seems now to be a part of the language called journalese. But my only point for the moment is personal or psychological; my own private testimony to the curious fact that, for some reason or other, a boy often does pass, from an early stage when he wants to know nearly everything, to a later stage when he wants to know next to nothing. A very practical and experienced traveller, with nothing of the mystic about him, once remarked to me suddenly: "There must be something rottenly wrong with education itself. So many people have wonderful children and all the grown-up people are such duds." And I know what he meant; though I am in doubt whether my present duddishness is due to education, or to some deeper and more mysterious cause.
Boyhood is a most complex and incomprehensible thing. Even when one has been through it, one does not understand what it was. A man can never quite understand a boy, even when he has been the boy. There grows all over what was once the child a sort of prickly protection like hair; a callousness, a carelessness, a curious combination of random and quite objectless energy with a readiness to accept conventions. I have blindly begun a lark which involved carrying on literally like a lunatic; and known all the time that I did not know why I was doing it. When I first met my best friend in the playground, I fought with him wildly for three-quarters of an hour; not scientifically and certainly not vindictively (I had never seen him before and I have been very fond of him ever since) but by a sort of inexhaustible and insatiable impulse, rushing hither and thither about the field and rolling over and over in the mud. And all the time I believe that both our minds were entirely mild and reasonable; and when we desisted from sheer exhaustion, and he happened to quote Dickens or the Bab Ballads, or something I had read, we plunged into a friendly discussion on literature which has gone on, intermittently, from that day to this. There is no explaining these things; if those who have done them cannot explain them. But since then I have seen boys in many countries and even of many colours; Egyptian boys in the bazaars of Cairo or mulatto boys in the slums of New York. And I have found that by some primordial law they all tend to three things; to going about in threes; to having no apparent object in going about at all; and, almost invariably speaking, to suddenly attacking each other and equally suddenly desisting from the attack.
Some may still question my calling this conduct conventional, from a general impression that two bankers or business partners do not commonly roll each other head-over-heels for fun, or in a spirit of pure friendship. It might be retorted that two business partners are not always by any means such pure friends. But in any case, it is true to call the thing a convention in more than the verbal sense of a collision. And it is exactly this convention that really separates the schoolboy from the child. When I went to St. Paul's School, in Hammersmith, there really was a sort of convention of independence; which was in a certain degree a false independence; because it was a false maturity. Here we must remember once more the fallacy about "pretending" in childhood. The child does not really pretend to be a Red Indian; any more than Shelley pretended to be a cloud or Tennyson to be a brook. The point can be tested by offering a political pamphlet to the cloud, a peerage to the brook, or a penny for sweets to the Red Bull of the Prairies. But the boy really is pretending to be a man; or even a man of the world; which would seem a far more horrific metamorphosis. Schoolboys in my time could be blasted with the horrible revelation of having a sister, or even a Christian name. And the deadly nature of this blow really consisted in the fact that it cracked the whole convention of our lives; the convention that each of us was on his own; an independent gentleman living on private means. The secret that each of us did in fact possess a family, and parents who paid for our support, was conventionally ignored and only revealed in moments of maddened revenge. But the point is that there was already a faint touch of corruption in this convention; precisely because it was more serious and less frank than the tarra-diddles of infancy. We had begun to be what no children are--snobs. Children disinfect all their dramatic impersonations by saying "Let us pretend." We schoolboys never said "Let us pretend"; we only pretended.
Boys, I have said, wander in threes. Three is certainly the symbolic number for comradeship, even if it is not always exactly the same as friendship. I have had the good luck to enjoy both, as did the Three Musketeers, or the Three Soldiers of Mr. Kipling. The first of my friends, with whom I fought in the field, has since written the best detective story of modern times and still conceals a very powerful sense of humour under the almost impenetrable disguise of a writer on the Daily Telegraph. He was, and indeed still is, remarkable for the combination of an extraordinary gravity of visage with extreme agility and quickness of movement. I used to say that he had the head of a professor on the body of a harlequin. It was a poetic pleasure to see him walk, a little pompously, down the street and suddenly scale a lamp-post like a monkey, with the alleged intention of lighting a cigarette, and then drop down and resume his walk with an unchanged expression of earnestness and serenity. He had extraordinarily well-balanced brains and could do almost anything with them; even writing an ordinary leading article for a London daily. But he could write clear and unadulterated nonsense with the same serious simplicity. It was he who invented that severe and stately form of Free Verse which has since been known by his own second name as "the Clerihew" (his name is Edward Clerihew Bentley) or "Biography for Beginners"; which dates from our days at school, when he sat listening to a chemical exposition, with his rather bored air and blank sheet of blotting paper before him. On this he wrote, inspired by the limpid spirit of song, the unadorned lines,
Sir Humphrey Davy
He incurred the odium
Of discovering sodium.
Even in those days I used to draw pictures, or what were called pictures, to illustrate these biographical rhymes; though of course it was not till decades afterwards that we either of us had the notion of publishing a book, or of publishing anything. Long after we had both become incurable scribblers, we remained inconspicuous schoolboys; we never thought we could be anything else; I do not think we very clearly realised that we ever should be anything else; or that our schoolboy days would ever end. In that sense we were as unambitious as children whispering a secret language. Our jokes were all domestic or developed out of the daily affairs of the school; but they covered enough waste paper to stock a library. I remember an interminable romance, for which I was always drawing pictures, and which I still think had a touch of wild fancy. It arose merely from our walking behind three of the masters; two of them, who were young and tall, had between them a third, who was old and very small; so that there seemed a vague suggestion that they were supporting him. On this was based the great constructive theory that the elder master (who was one of the most important persons in the school) was in fact only a clock-work figure, which they carried about with them and wound up to go through his daily round. The dummy and the two conspirators were dragged through an endless reel of long-drawn (and badly drawn) adventures, some scraps of which must still be kicking about the world somewhere. But needless to say, we never thought of doing anything with them, except enjoying them. It has sometimes struck me as not being a bad thing to do with things.
My friend Bentley, indeed, had and has a natural talent for these elaborate strategic maps of nonsense, or the suggestion of such preposterous plots. It is something like the industry which accompanies the fantasy of Father Ronald Knox, when he makes a detailed map of the Barsetshire of Trollope or works out an incredible cryptogram to show that Queen Victoria wrote "In Memoriam." I remember one day when the whole school assembled for a presentation to a master who was leaving us to take up a fellowship at Peterhouse. The congratulatory speech was made by one of the upper masters who happened to be a learned but heavy and very solemn old gentleman, whose manner and diction were alike ponderous and prosaic. My friend and I were sitting side by side, hopeless of any enlivenment except from the speaker's solemnity; when the whole assembly was startled as by a thunderclap. The old gentleman had made a joke. What was even more shocking, it was quite a good joke. He remarked that, in sending our friend from this school to that college, we were robbing Paul to pay Peter. We looked at each other with a wild surmise. We shook our heads gravely. It could not be explained. But Bentley afterwards produced a most convincing and exhaustive explanation. He insisted that the elder schoolmaster had devoted his whole life to planning and preparations for that one joke. He had used his interest with the High Master to obtain for the junior master a place on the staff. He had intrigued with the University authorities to get him a Fellowship at that college. He had lived for that hour. He had now made his first and last joke; and probably would soon pass away in peace.
It was the third member of our original trio who brought into our secrets the breath of ambition and the air out of the great world. He was a dark and very thin youth, named Lucian Oldershaw, who looked and in some ways was very sensitive; but about those larger matters he was much less shy than we were. He was the son of an actor and had travelled about the country more than the rest of us; he had been to other schools and he knew much more of the variety of life. Above all, there possessed him, almost feverishly, a vast, amazing and devastating idea, the idea of doing something; of doing something in the manner of grown-up people, who were the only people who could be conceived as doing things. I well remember how my hair stood on end, when he first spoke casually about the official School Magazine; which was to me something like the School Prayers or the School Foundation. None of us had ever dreamed of contributing to it, any more than to the Encyclopedia Britannica. And my new friend, who was somewhat younger than I, spoke lightly about an old idea he had had of establishing some cooperation between all the great school magazines, those of Eton, Harrow, Winchester and the rest. If he had proposed that we should conquer and rule the British Empire, I could not have been more staggered; but he dismissed it as casually as he had called it up, and then proposed in cold blood that we should publish a magazine of our own; and have it printed at a real printer's. He must have possessed considerable persuasive powers; because we actually did. We also founded a small society of boys of our own age, and called it the Junior Debating Club; though nobody, so far as I know, has ever heard of the Senior Debating Club. There was the Union, to which you belonged when you were in the top form, as you did other lawful and appalling things, such as dining with the High Master. But we no more anticipated that at our age, than we anticipated death.
Our debates are still recorded in stray volumes of our strange little paper; the persons of the play being mysteriously represented by their initials, as if they were members of a secret society in a sensational novel; as "Mr. B. emphatically disputed the last speaker's statement," or "These remarks provoked an indignant protest from Mr. C." This and other deadly fascinations render these old volumes the favourite reading of my friend, Mr. Edward Fordham, who was himself a member of the club and delighted in decorating its chronicle with the most magnificent and florid journalese, and in making game in it of himself and others. He is still, I believe, especially attached to a passage in the reports which states, of one of the little boys who formed this society, "Mr. L.D. briefly described the Governments of France, America, Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain." Sometimes, however, Fordham's own burlesque rhetoric recoiled on his own head. He described one of the innumerable riots of our tea-table by writing, "A penny bun of the sticky order caressingly stung the chairman's honoured cheek, sped on its errand of mercy by the unerring hand of Mr. F." I may remark that I was the chairman; and I was generally honoured in that way. But the printer avenged me; for he rendered the missile as "A peony but of the stick order"; a most suggestive botanical formula. It was the beginning of a long career of martyrdom from misprints; which reached its crown when I wrote of a Nonconformist minister, "a distinguished correspondent," and it came out as, "a distinguished co-respondent."
Our debating club was actually founded and did actually debate, if it can be called debating. This part of the matter did not alarm me much; for I had debated off and on ever since I was born; certainly with my brother, probably with my nurse. But, what was infinitely more bloodcurdling, our paper did actually appear in print; and I contributed to it turgid poems, in which bad imitations of Swinburne were so exactly balanced with worse imitations of the Lays of Ancient Rome, that many of my simpler friends fell under the illusion that I had a style of my own. I have never read those verses since; there are limits to the degradation and despair which even autobiography demands. But I must admit that, for whatever reason, they attracted a certain amount of attention; and our experiment began to float to the surface of the school life and come within range of official attention, which was the last thing I had ever desired. It is only right to say that the magazine contained probably better, and certainly better educated, poetry than mine. Among the small group of twelve that formed our society was Robert Vernede, who also imitated Swinburne, but who was capable of appreciating how well Swinburne imitated the Greek poets. It is melancholy and amusing to reflect that of all those eager Swinburnian echoes, I can only remember an echo of parody; in which the style of Vernède's first choruses, a la Atalanta, were rendered by Bentley in the form of a farewell to him when he departed from the tea-table:
Let the milk that was poured
Be the draught of the cat,
For from under the board
From the seat where he sat
The feet of his boots are departed;
he has widowed the hall of his hat.
Vernède and Bentley were very intimate; and had something in common in their union of immobility and activity; but the immobility of Vernède was not dry and earnest like the other; but somnolent and oriental, like that of a Buddha, or (as his early friends were more prone to inform him) of a cat. He had that oval, almost Japanese face that can be seen in some of the Southern French blood of which he came. He lived to be a fine and promising poet and to write, on the outbreak of the fighting, a noble invocation to the English Sea, which multitudes must still remember. But his full promise as a poet he did not keep; because he kept a better one, and is dead on the field of honour.
For the rest, it is very typical of the difference between the two or three types that the work of E. C. B., my first and in every sense original friend, was the only work in the whole paper which might have been published by the same person fifteen years afterwards. Whatever the other relative merits of our minds, his was by far the most mature; perhaps for the very reason that it largely confined itself to being critical or flippant. Anyhow, the nonsense fables that he wrote for the paper would have made excellent paragraphs in any real paper. There was nothing particularly juvenile about them and, of all men I have known, he is the man whose mind has least changed, has least lost its balance and, above all, had least of the first youthful blunders in finding its balance. He had also, as I have said, a sort of calm versatility; he could carry out other people's plans and improve them; he could, as the phrase goes, turn his hand to anything. On this absurd little rag of a school paper, the original three wrote letters in rotation, in three imaginary characters; and I think his were the best. Twenty years later, when Belloc and I started a scheme of Ballades for the Eye Witness, Bentley was brought in afterwards, in the same fashion; and I think his were the best. But he was at this time and perhaps for long after, too detached and ironic to become conspicuous in connection with a cause, or any of the things in which youth is generally both communal and combative. When some of us were pretending to be Knights of the Round Table, he was content to be Dagonet the fool, or in other words, the wise man. And it was in the character of a portentously solemn buffoon that he began to draw the attention of the elders. When the old High Master of St. Paul's School ran his eye through a version of the Dog in the Manger, which described the cattle as being prevented "from refreshing their inner cows" he went into unearthly convulsions of his own extraordinary laughter which, like the other movements of his extraordinary voice, began like an organ and ended like a penny whistle. "That boy looks at the world standing on his head," said the High Master of St. Paul's School; and instantly we were in the full blaze of the spot-light.
It is time that something should be said about the masters, and especially the High Master. Immensely important as we thought ourselves in comparison with those remote but respectable enemies, after all they did have something to do with the school. The most eccentric and entertaining of them, Mr. Elam, has already been sketched in brilliant black and white by the pen of Mr. Compton Mackenzie. I have forgotten whether Mr. Mackenzie mentioned what always struck me as the most disturbing eccentricity of that eccentric; the open derision with which he spoke of his own profession and position, of those who shared it with him and even of those who were set over him in its exercise. He would explain the difference between satire and the bitterness of the risus sardonicus by the helpful parable, "If I were walking along the street and fell down in the mud, I should laugh a sardonic laugh. But if I were to see the High Master of this school fall down in the mud, I should laugh a sarcastic laugh." I chiefly mention his name here for another reason; because he once vented his scorn for what he called "the trade of an usher" in the form of a rhetorical question addressed to a boy: "Why are boys sent to school, Robinson?" Robinson, with downcast eyes and an air of offensive virtue, replied faintly, "To learn, sir." "No, boy, no," said the old gentleman wagging his head. "It was because one day at breakfast Mr. Robinson said to Mrs. Robinson, 'My dear, we must do something about that boy. He's a nuisance to me and he's a nuisance to you and he's a perfect plague to the servants.'" Then, with an indescribable extreme of grinding and grating contempt: "'So we'll Pay Some Man. . . .'"
I say I introduce this ancient anecdote for another reason; and it is partly because I would suggest another answer. If ever the problem troubled me in my boyhood, it did not force me in the direction of the lofty morality of Robinson. The idea that I had come to school to work was too grotesque to cloud my mind for an instant. It was also in too obvious a contrast with the facts and the result. I was very fond of my friends; though, as is common at such an age, I was much too fond of them to be openly emotional about it. But I do remember coming, almost seriously, to the conclusion that a boy must go to school to study the characters of his schoolmasters. And I still think that there was something in it. After all, the schoolmaster is the first educated grown-up person that the boy comes to see constantly, after having been introduced at an early age to his father and mother. And the masters at St. Paul's were very interesting; even those of them who were not so obviously eccentric as the celebrated Mr. Elam. To one very distinguished individual, my own personal debt is infinite; I mean, the historian of the Indian Mutiny and of the campaigns of Caesar--Mr. T. Rice Holmes. He managed, heaven knows how, to penetrate through my deep and desperately consolidated desire to appear stupid; and discover the horrible secret that I was, after all, endowed with the gift of reason above the brutes. He would suddenly ask me questions a thousand miles away from the subject at hand, and surprise me into admitting that I had heard of the Song of Roland, or even read a play or two of Shakespeare. Nobody who knows anything of the English schoolboy at that date will imagine that there was at the moment any pleasure in such prominence or distinction. We were all hag-ridden with a horror of showing off, which was perhaps the only coherent moral principal we possessed. There was one boy, I remember, who was so insanely sensitive on this point of honour, that he could hardly bear to hear one of his friends answer an ordinary question right. He felt that his comrade really ought to have invented some mistake, in the general interest of comradeship. When my information about the French epic was torn from me, in spite of my efforts, he actually put his head in his desk and dropped the lid on it, groaning in a generous and impersonal shame and faintly and hoarsely exclaiming, "Oh, shut it. ... Oh, shut up!" He was an extreme exponent of the principle; but it was a principle which I fully shared. I can remember running to school in sheer excitement repeating militant lines of "Marmion" with passionate emphasis and exultation; and then going into class and repeating the same lines in the lifeless manner of a hurdy-gurdy, hoping that there was nothing whatever in my intonation to indicate that I distinguished between the sense of one word and another.
Nobody, I think, ever got past my guard in this matter except Mr. T. R. Holmes and Mr. R. F. Cholmeley, who afterwards became the house-master of my two intimate friends, and who, I am glad to say, has often joined us in later years in our reunions of remembrance. But, somehow or other, a rumour must have begun to circulate among the authorities that we were not such fools as we looked. One day, to my consternation, the High Master stopped me in the street and led me along, roaring in my deafened and bewildered ears that I had a literary faculty which might come to something if somebody could give it solidity. Some time after that, to my cowering terror, he bellowed aloud to a whole crowd of parents and other preposterous intruders, on the occasion of a prize day, that our little magazine showed signs of considerable talent, though it was an unofficial publication on which he "might have hesitated to set his Imprimatur". Somehow we felt it would have been even more crushing if he had set his Imprimatur. It sounded like the thumb of a giant.
Frederick Walker, Head Master of Manchester and afterwards High Master of St. Paul's School, was, as most people know by this time, a very remarkable man. He was the sort of man who may live in anecdotes, like Dr. Johnson; indeed in some respects he was not unlike Dr. Johnson. He was like him in the startling volume of his voice, in his heavy face and figure, and in a certain tendency to explode at what did not seem to be exactly the appropriate moment; he would talk with perfect good humour and rationality and rend the roof over what seemed a trifle. In essential matters, however, his hard-hitting was generally quite right; and had even about it a homely and popular character, that somehow smacked of the north country. It is he of whom the famous tale is told that, when a fastidious lady wrote to ask him what was the social standing of the boys at his school, he replied, "Madam, so long as your son behaves himself and the fees are paid, no questions will be asked about his social standing."
One day I was frozen with astonishment to find my name in an announcement on the notice-board, saying that I was to be accorded the privileges of the highest form, though I did not belong to it. It produced in me a desire to be accorded the privileges and protection of the coal-cellar and never to come out again. At the same time I learned that a special branch of the highest form had actually been created for my two principal friends, in order that they might study for History Scholarships at the Universities. All this seemed like the very universe breaking up and turning topsy-turvy; and indeed all sorts of things happened about this time that seemed to be quite outside the laws of nature. I got a prize, for instance; what was called the Milton Prize for what was called a prize poem; I imagine it was about as bad as all other prize poems, but I am happy to say that I cannot recall a single syllable of it. I do, however recall the subject, not without a faint thrill of irony; for the subject was St. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit who preached to the Chinese. I recall these things, so contrary to the previous course of my school life, because I am not sorry to be an exception to the modern tendency to reproach the old Victorian schoolmaster with stupidity and neglect and to represent the rising generation as a shining band of Shelleys inspired by light and liberty to rise. The truth is that in this case it was I who exhibited the stupidity; though I really think it was largely an affected stupidity. And certainly it was I who rejoiced in the neglect, and who asked for nothing better than to be neglected. It was, if anything, the authorities who dragged me, in my own despite, out of the comfortable and protected atmosphere of obscurity and failure. Personally, I was perfectly happy at the bottom of the class.
For the rest, I think the chief impression I produced, on most of the masters and many of the boys, was a pretty well-founded conviction that I was asleep. Perhaps what nobody knew, not even myself, was that I was asleep and dreaming. The dreams were not much more sensible or valuable than they commonly are in persons in such profound slumber; but they already had this obscure effect on my existence; that my mind was already occupied, though I myself was idle. Before forming the few special friendships of which I speak, I was somewhat solitary; not sharply unpopular or in any sense persecuted, but solitary. But though I was solitary, I was not sorry; and I think I can claim that I was not sulky. One effect of this was that my first acquaintances, as distinct from my ultimate friends, were odd and scrappy sort of people like myself. These individuals were accidents; one or two of them I fear were disasters. I remember one youth who made one appearance in my daily life, that puzzled me like a detective story. I cannot imagine how I came to cultivate his society; still less how he came to cultivate mine. For he was a brilliant mathematician, and must presumably have worked hard at mathematics; whereas I worked less at mathematics, if possible, than at anything else. Moreover, I was very untidy and he was very tidy, with a large clean collar and an Eton jacket, also a large head very neatly brushed but something odd and perhaps too mature about his froglike face. One day he asked me whether I could lend him a Hall & Knight's Algebra. So far as enthusiasm for that study was concerned I could answer, "Thy need is greater than mine," with all the gesture of Sir Philip Sidney; but I had to observe some minimum of attention to the mathematical class; so in lending him the book, I told him I should want it back some time next week. As the time approached, I was much mystified by the fact that I found it quite difficult to get it back. He gave evasive replies; he interposed postponements and hazy promises; till at last I quarrelled with him, using the words of action which are really commoner among schoolboys as words than as actions; but anyhow indicating that I should make an earnest effort to punch his head. To this threat, he ultimately capitulated; and eventually led me to his locker, which he reluctantly opened. And his locker was stuffed from top to bottom with about twenty-five identical copies of Hall & Knight's Algebra, which he had presumably collected by similar arts from similar acquaintances. I believe he left the school later, without any particular scandal; and I hope the poor fellow recovered his mental balance somewhere else. I write in no superior spirit; I was quite capable myself at many early stages of going mad in a quiet way; but not by an exaggerated appetite for Hall & Knight's Algebra.
There was another little boy with whom I walked to school in the same fortuitous fellowship; a very prim and proper little boy, as became the son of the venerable and somewhat ponderous clergyman who held one of the highest scholastic posts in the school. He also was very neat, he also was quite an industrious pupil; and he also had a peculiarity. He was the most fertile, fluent and really disinterested liar I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. There was nothing base or materialistic about his mendacity; he was not trying to cheat anybody or to get anything; he simply boasted like Baron Munchausen in quiet and even tones all the way from Holland Park to Hammersmith. He told the most staggering stories about himself, without lifting his voice or showing the faintest embarrassment; and there was nothing else notable about him at all. I have often wondered what became of him; and whether he followed his father into the Church. It may be retorted by the light-minded, that he may have fallen so low as to write stories, even crime stories, like myself; which some regard as almost tantamount to joining the criminal classes. But I do not believe any of his stories would be probable enough for fiction.
Perhaps the same chapter of accidents, that threw me first in the way of these human curiosities, was responsible for another social accident, of which I am very glad; for it led to my seeing both sides of a very difficult social question; about which a great deal of nonsense is talked on both sides; and the worst nonsense of all by those who talk as if there were no question at all. It must be explained that St. Paul's School, in schoolboy language, was more than most others a school of "swots." I need hardly clear myself of the charge of swottishness; and, of course, there were many lazy boys, and some almost as lazy as I. But the diligent type was in a larger proportion than is usual; for the school was chiefly celebrated for winning scholarships at the Universities, rather than for athletics or other forms of fame. And there was another reason why this particular type was conspicuous. To put the point in popular language, there were a great many swots partly because there were a great many Jews.
Oddly enough, I lived to have later on the name of an Anti-Semite; whereas from my first days at school I very largely had the name of a Pro-Semite. I made many friends among the Jews, and some of these I have retained as life-long friends; nor have our relations ever been disturbed by differences upon the political or social problem. I am glad that I began at this end; but I have not really ended any differently from the way in which I began. I held by instinct then, and I hold by knowledge now, that the right way is to be interested in Jews as Jews; and then to bring into greater prominence the very much neglected Jewish virtues, which are the complement and sometimes even the cause of what the world feels to be the Jewish faults. For instance, one of the great Jewish virtues is gratitude. I was criticised in early days for quixotry and priggishness in protecting Jews; and I remember once extricating a strange swarthy little creature with a hooked nose from being bullied, or rather being teased; for the worst torture really consisted of his being lightly tossed from one boy to another amid wild stares of wide-eyed scientific curiosity and questions like, "What is it?" and "Is it alive?" Thirty years afterwards, when that little goblin was a great grown bearded man, utterly remote from me in type and trade and interests and opinions, he had a sort of permanent fountain of thanks for that trifling incident, which was quite embarrassing. In the same way, I noted that strong family bond among the Jews which, as I recognized, was not merely disguised but denied among most normal schoolboys. Doubtless, I came to know the Jews because in this sense they were a little abnormal, as I was then becoming a little abnormal myself. Yet there is nothing I have come to count more normal, and nothing I desire more to restore to its normal place, than those two things; the family and the theory of thanks. And then, in the light of these virtues as seen from within, it was often possible to understand the origin and even the justification of much of the Anti-Semitic criticism from without. For it is often the very loyalty of the Jewish family which appears as disloyalty to the Christian state. As the reader will realise before the end, it was partly what I admired in private friends, especially in two brothers named Solomon, which I came ultimately to denounce in political enemies, in two brothers named Isaacs. The first were good by every standard, the second vulnerable even by their own standard: and yet they had the same virtue.
I am not at all ashamed of having asked Aryans to have more patience with Jews or for having asked Anglo-Saxons to have more patience with Jew-baiters. The whole problem of the two entangled cultures and traditions is much too deep and difficult, on both sides, to be decided impatiently. But I have very little patience with those who will not solve the problem, on the ground that there is no problem to solve. I cannot explain the Jews; but I certainly will not explain them away. Nor have the Jews a worse enemy than the sort of Jew sceptic who sometimes tries to explain himself away. I have seen a whole book full of alternative theories of the particular historic cause of such a delusion about a difference; that it came from mediaeval priests or was burnt into us by the Inquisition; that it was a tribal theory arising out of Teutonism; that it was revolutionary envy of the few Jews who happened to be the big bankers of Capitalism; that it was Capitalist resistance to the few Jews who happened to be the chief founders of Communism. All these separate theories are false in separate ways; as in forgetting that mediaeval heresy hunts spared Jews more and not less than Christians; or that Capitalism and Communism are so very nearly the same thing, in ethical essence, that it would not be strange if they did take leaders from the same ethnological elements. But broadly, the evasions are contrary to common sense; as they were contrary even to the common sense of a boy of thirteen. I do not believe that a crowd on a race-course is poisoned by mediaeval theology; or the navvies in a Mile End pub misled by the ethnology of Gobineau or Max Müller; nor do I believe that a mob of little boys fresh from the cricket-field or the tuckshop were troubled about Marxian economics or international finance. Yet all these people recognise Jews as Jews when they see them; and the schoolboys recognised them, not with any great hostility except in patches; but with the integration of instinct. What they saw was not Semites or Schismatics or capitalists or revolutionists, but foreigners; only foreigners that were not called foreigners. This did not prevent friendship and affection, especially in my own case; but then it never has prevented it in the case of ordinary foreigners. One of these early friends of mine, now Professor of Latin at University College, happened to have all the Jewish virtues, and also all the others there are; he afterwards became a member of the little club already described; and passed through Oxford with distinction; probably greater distinction than my other friends.
Most of the members of our little club, however, thus passed on to the older Universities and were promising figures either on the academic or social and political side; two of them being Presidents of the Oxford and two of the Cambridge Union. Oldershaw, characteristically enough, was almost instantly found immersed and entangled in the establishment of yet another unofficial paper, called the J.C.R., in which were not a few memorable curiosities of literature; including the first work of a pen then unknown to me, but recognisable enough now in lines like, "We slumbered on the firelit ground beside the guns in Burgundy." Bentley, on being requested by a poetical lady to write something suitable to Wordsworth's Seat, did not relax his rigid flippancy and composed the simple lines that end:
It seems a pity certainly
That two such men as we
By such a trifle as the Grave
Should separated be.
'Twas ever thus; we might have had
A pleasant afternoon,
But Man is always born too late
Or else he dies too soon.
while Lawrence Solomon, the learned Jewish friend of whom I have spoken, wrote about the best of the parodies of FitzGerald's Omar, then a fashionable theme, warning undergraduates not to expect a Blue or a First: "For these were not for me; how should they be for you?" As a fact, I think he did get a First; but all of them must have lived to realise the further moral:
For them that win and them that lose the game
For you, for me, the ending is the same,
To climb the stairs to our old College room
Look o'er the door; and see another's name.
There seemed a general tendency of these schoolfellows of mine to excel in light verse; Fordham, who went to Cambridge, has written many satiric lyrics which have been published and many satiric dramas which ought to be published. If I wind up here some of the stories of my old friends, it is not because I dismiss them from my memories, but because I must admit a multitude of much less interesting people into my memoirs. One contrast in their subsequent careers has always struck me as a curious case of the incalculable individuality and freewill of man. A friend of Fordham, normal, virile and ambitious, popular rather in the sense of fashionable, always struck me as the sort of man who could wear a uniform in camp or court, serving the obvious virtues. When the Great War came, he became an uncompromising and unconventional Pacifist agitator. Another, a friend of Vernède, one of those rare spiritual types in which a Puritan tradition has really flowered into a full Hellenic culture, is the most unselfish man I ever knew in my life, of the sort that is still unsatisfied even with its own unselfishness. I should say he was something rather like a saint; but I should never have been surprised if he had been a Conscientious Objector. As a fact, he went to the Front in a flash like fire; and had his leg shot off in his first battle.
But all this time very queer things were groping and wrestling inside my own undeveloped mind; and I have said nothing of them in this chapter; for it was the sustained and successful effort of most of my school life to keep them to myself. I said farewell to my friends when they went up to Oxford and Cambridge; while I, who was at that time almost wholly taken up with the idea of drawing pictures, went to an Art School and brought my boyhood to an end.