THE FADING MARGIN: serial 3

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.*

CHAPTER TWO: Part II

Goodbye Bertie

 

 HOME FOR CHRISTMAS at the end of his first term, Bertie is not interrogated about beatings or any other disagreeabilities, but his mother wants to hear about the fagging. Twenty years hence fagging will be on its way out. Now, at the time of Bertie’s boarding school début, it is a long and well established convention, approved of by the great Dr.Arnold himself. What it entails varies infinitely from school to school. In general, it is roughly true to say that it is junior boys acting to a greater or lesser degree as the personal servants of significantly more senior ones. Duties may include almost anything from cleaning dirty rugger boots to making toast for study tea. Clearly, the scope for abuse (not in the sexual sense, though fervent opponents of the system sometimes suggested otherwise) is considerable, as in the public school system of discipline as a whole, and it is this aspect of the matter that concerns my mother. Fagging is “all right”, I am able to assure her. No; I don’t much like it, but it doesn’t really bother me either and sometimes means that I get extra tuck. Thus reassured, my mother focusses her anxieties on the subject of food.

Again, it was not the cause of any complaint.  “Not bad” was my overall report. One was always hungry, of course, and the contents of my tuck box, lovingly and generously replenished in the course of the once-a-term parental visit, and not infrequently by post, seemed indispensable to survival.  Dining hall menus would have been heaven-sent targets of attention for an as yet unborn legion of reforming television chefs, but dishes were wholesome, the consumers unsophisticated, juvenile appetites unfailingly sharp and bread of varying age and condition (for which Marmite was the favourite accompaniment) usually plentiful.  Less dependable, because privately funded, were after-games visits to the school tuck shop. Here, the affluent (and they were not unknown among us) might feast on fried eggs, beans and sausages while poorer customers made do with  a bowl of cornflakes or “half a loaf and half of butter”, the term for a quarter of a standard loaf and  half of  a 1lb packet of butter. The ISC was no holiday home, but neither was it Dotheboys Hall.

“A nice Christmas present”, says Bertie’s father of his end of term report. Form: Upper Third. Number in form: 13. Final place: 7. The Head Master thinks that the boy has made “a fine start” and is “full of life”. His housemaster says that he has “made quite a good start”, has “settled down” and “should do better next term”. Note the judicious “quite”, and the “settled down”, with its implication of turbulence past. For “full of life”, read “has been involved in numerous disturbances which have required disciplinary measures”.

Though neither Bertie nor any of his elders and betters can know it, 1937 will prove to have been what, sixty years later, Roy Jenkins, one of Winston Churchill’s biographers, will describe as “the final year of superficial peace……the equivalent of 1913 in the pre-1914 autumnal sunshine”. King George VI has been crowned in Westminster Abbey. As Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII has married Wallis Simpson. The German airship Hindenburg has exploded in New Jersey. Malcolm Campbell has set a new world water speed record. Neville Chamberlain has succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister and in pursuit of the policy that will become infamous as “appeasement” Lord Halifax has talked with Hitler. The Japanese have bombed Shanghai and in the Spanish civil war Heinkel and Junkers aircraft of the German Condor legion have wiped Guernica from the map. (Picasso will depict the incident in one of his most famous works.)

FINEST HOUR

December, 1938. In what history will call “the rape of Nanking”, the Japanese have slaughtered more than 200,000 civilians and 90,000 soldiers (many thousands of the latter bayoneted after being taken prisoner) and raped between 20,000 and 80,000 women. Graham Greene has written Brighton Rock, Benny Goodman has introduced a new style of Jazz, Alfred Hitchcock has made The Lady Vanishes and Chamberlain has fatuously returned from Munich with a promise of “peace in our time”. At Windsor, Bertie has helped to dig air raid trenches in the argillaceous soil of the school playing fields and has assisted one of the housemaster’s wives in the distribution of gas masks to the townspeople. Letters home have told of his joining the band of the OTC (Officers’ Training Corps) as a side drummer and becoming a bugler, of his playing for the Colts rugby football XV and of his learning to box. His end-of-term report places him 3rd out of 21 in form, with the Head Master bearing witness to “Good all-round progress”.

Reports for 1939 and 1940 are missing from the archives. The trenches that were dug at the edges of the playing fields are brimming with water. Memory highlights a Sunday morning in September, ’39, when I had returned home from the village tennis courts to find my parents listening to the wireless, awaiting a statement from Neville Chamberlain. At the Prime Minister’s words “consequently, this country is at war with Germany”, my mother burst into tears. Acutely embarrassed at what seemed a melodramatic exhibition of emotion, I exclaimed something like “Oh, for goodness sake!”, which so infuriated my father that for a second he seemed about to strike me. When the situation had been brought under control my mother (who had five other sons; four of them already in uniform) thanked God that at least her fifteen-year-old would not be “in it”. Later, I went back to the tennis courts.

On a day at school the following May, just before chapel, a boy called Brown told me that the French had capitulated. I said that what he was reporting couldn’t possibly be true. Brown insisted that it was. I became angry and said again that it couldn’t be. When in chapel the school chaplain asked us to pray for the French people in their hour of trial, Brown looked at me triumphantly from a pew across the aisle. Afterwards he taunted me with his “I told you so” and said that it was “just like the frogs”.

Children and grown-ups alike, it was a time when fear ought to have ruled our lives. Except for a very few, it never did. The proposition that Britain might be invaded and that Germany might win the war was not unthinkable, but was not seriously entertainable then or at any other time: like a return of the Black Death or beheadings on Tower Hill, one knew that in theory it could happen, but it was inconceivable that it would. The British army had been driven from France, abandoning most of its precious equipment at Dunkirk, but rather than being chastened by defeat the nation celebrated the fact that Hitler had been thwarted, prompting Churchill’s admonitory “wars are not won by evacuations”. It took two more years of military disasters to breed what General Montgomery came to regard as a dangerously exaggerated respect entertained by the British soldier for his German adversary, and a little longer for some of us to learn that such respect was richly deserved.

Soon after the fall of France, responding to rumours that the German invasion of Britain had begun, members of the school OTC were briefly deployed in the Berkshire countryside in company with the Home Guard, scanning the cloudless sky for enemy parachutists. To us schoolboys in the shadow of England’s greatest fortress, not an hour’s march from Runnymede and seven centuries from Magna Carta, the whole thing was an exciting variation of cops and robbers and there was disappointment that no one ever dropped in to test the martial qualities of our eager band. In the summer holidays in Sussex, while I was dancing clumsily with a nurse from the local hospital at a garden fête, a Hurricane pilot who had been shot down in a dog fight landed by parachute in the middle of the roses to the accompaniment of an RAF band playing Begin the Beguine.

Was it in these holidays, or in others, that I dressed in my school OTC uniform and hitched a lift to Cornwall, where a brother in RAF Coastal Command and a friend who was a pilot risked severe disciplinary proceedings by arranging for me to fly in a Beaufort bomber out over the English Channel? Possibly as much as a curiosity (the soldier child) as through filial affection, I was taken, too, on evening expeditions to the Ring O’Bells at St. Issey, a free house where the RAF from St. Eval and the Fleet Air Arm from neighbouring St. Merryn chorused to tunes played by a one-time West End review star, now a lowly airman, on the upright piano in the public bar and where – under age and illegally –I drank shandy.

Midnight return drives to St. Austell in the hugely overloaded Morris could not have been much less potentially lethal than airborne sweeps over the Atlantic, but it was a time when anticipation of drink-drive laws of the future would have immobilised most of the fighting services in their leisure activities, police patrol cars were non-existent, and the bobby on his bicycle was more concerned with enforcing the blackout than with closing time. Seek no further for reasons why many a man was to look back on the war as his finest hour. In years to come, young men and women would see old eyes that had known the Ring O’ Bells turn tearful at the playing of Liebestraum or Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and not know the reason why.

And was it this year, or the next, that my brother Paul in the merchant marine would return on survivors’ leave, white-faced still from the sinking of his tanker off the Gulf of Mexico, bringing with him Elmer’s Tune (a song all the rage in the USA but new at home), naval Woodbines and packs of sweet-scented Lucky Strike cigarettes? I was not yet a smoker, but the time was soon to come when the naval Woodbines would be as welcome as a lover’s arms, and —temporarily at least— more therapeutic. The years have not dulled the recollection of the tactile and olfactory pleasure to be derived from the mere opening of the tin.

That autumn and winter, the dark was often relieved by the oscillating beams of the searchlights in their largely vain attempts to illuminate the enemy bombers that at times brought a furnace glow to the eastern horizon. London was “catching it”. One of the main approaches took the high-flying Dorniers and Heinkels over Kent and Sussex. Worn down by their characteristically sinister throb night after night, her normally robust constitution already undermined by imaginative fears for her sons in uniform, my mother showed signs of a nervous breakdown, and in the spring, after a raid in which more than 2,000 Londoners were killed, was taken by my father to the refuge of her old home in Montgomeryshire. But for her youngest son there were cross-country races to be run and rugby matches to be won. More clamorous than the vicissitudes of war were the quantities of bread and Marmite available in the school dining hall and eggs and butter obtainable (and affordable) in the school ‘grub shop’. In North Africa, General Wavell captured Benghazi. In the North Atlantic, the Bismarck sank the Hood with the loss of more than 1,400 British lives, then was herself sunk along with some 2,200 of her crew.

GOODBYE BERTIE

For the following two years a few photographs and letters, another Victor Ludorum medallion, haphazard memories and school reports for the summer and winter terms of 1941 seem to be the only surviving relics of Bertie’s time at the ISC. Strictly, the pejorative first name is now redundant, for he has become simply “Buxton Two” (there is a more senior, unrelated Buxton at the school). He is in the school boxing team, triumphs in middle distance races as well as sprints and wins both his house and school colours for rugby football. (Witness successive photographs in which he progresses from cross-legged on the grass, to standing with arms folded, to seated next to the captain of the First XV, who is holding the ball.)

Which is not all. He plays the Last Post faultlessly on his OTC bugle at the Armistice Day service. He is a leading light in the debating society (“The Pilgrim Fathers are said to have landed on the Plymouth Rock. In the opinion of this house it would have been preferable for the Plymouth Rock to have landed on the Pilgrim Fathers”, Buxton leading for the opposition). He wins prizes for photographs which he himself has taken, developed and printed and at the annual school concert sings Oh, For The Wings Of A Dove.

Academically, he seems to be predictable only in his un-predictability; at his brightest, shining in English (“Excellent. Writes a good essay”) and French (“Has worked well. Exams good”); at his worst, German (“Very weak. Disappointing in examination”). He passes both the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Certificate and the Higher Certificate with honours. Becoming a house officer, then a school prefect, he equips himself with a long, pliant cane, but never uses it. The last house photograph in which he appears shows him stern of face, arms folded, sitting beside the House Master (“He has been a great help to me, and I shall be sorry to lose him”), on the other side of whom is a future captain of Royal Marines who will be killed near Arromanches on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. On his right is Martin One, who will die in a Cromwell tank on the outskirts of Bremen and whose brother, Martin Two, will fly a Lancaster to Berlin, but will not return.

___________

*  Tennyson

NEXT FRIDAY, 7th December.  Chapter Three:  Officer Cadet.

That my contemporaries and I would volunteer to go direct from school into the fighting services was as inevitable as June following May. Equally unsurprising for the majority of boys from a place with an ethos such as that of the ISC was the choice of the Army rather than the Navy or the RAF. ………A commission in the Guards could be gained in less than a year. Guards officers wore distinctively smart uniforms and commanded much respect. My father, however, who knew how little time was needed after his commissioning parade for a wartime subaltern in the Brigade of Guards to be reported as killed or missing in action, decisively advised against the long greatcoat and distinctively peaked hat………
………………..It is December. The army of General von Paulus is still investing Stalingrad and in the course of an exercise with armour on the moors the hatch of a tank has fallen on the fingers of my left hand. Had I not been wearing two pairs of gloves, the outer pair especially thick leather with sheepskin lining, I would probably have lost several of my fingers, as many a man had done before me. In the event, only the end of a middle finger was badly crushed, but I see the injured cadet as he squats inside the machine while shells explode on the hull (the object of the exercise is to demonstrate the invulnerability of the heavy tank to any but armour-piercing shot), deeply shocked, trying to control his voice so as to give orders to the driver, then weeping as shock gives way to pain.

THE FADING MARGIN: serial 2

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When he enlisted in the army in October, 1941, Nigel Buxton was still at boarding school. A year and a half later, following six months at the University of Glasgow on a special War Office course, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery for almost five years during which he was a junior officer on active service in France and Germany, a light aircraft pilot, an assistant adjutant in India during the last days of the Raj and ADC to the general commanding Special Force 401 in Iraq. Demobilised in 1947, soon obliged to abandon a fancy for becoming a film director, he became successively an employee of a major oil company, an Oxford graduate in history, tutor in South Africa to the son and heir of one of the world’s most powerful industrialists and deputy press officer with a leading UK manufacturer of drugs and chemicals.
While still an undergraduate he had articles published in The Spectator. Later, other successful freelance writing led to his living and working in Mallorca under the aegis of Robert Graves before joining the Sunday Telegraph at its inception in 1961 as regular columnist and travel editor. His published works have included the  Penguin Guide to Travel In Europe, America, and the  award-winning Walking in Wine Country, a consequence of five years exploring the vineyards of France on foot. He has been a contributor to numerous publications, was a founder  member of the International Consultative Committee for the French National Tourist Office and belongs to the Circle of Wine Writers.
*   *   *

CHAPTER TWO

Bertie & Co.

 After only two years as a grammar school puppy dog I moved yet again, this time far beyond the village boundary. During the war of 1914-1918, my father had soldiered with a unit of cavalry founded and officered largely by British expatriates in South Africa. One of my earliest memories is of veterans marching past  the Cavalry war memorial at Stanhope Gate in London’s Hyde Park. When the regiment came to be disbanded in 1919 a substantial accumulation of regimental funds which had been profitably invested were used to finance a bursary enabling selected ‘sons of the regiment’ to be educated at The Imperial Service College. What the criteria of selection had been I never knew, but on an autumn day in 1937, when Hitler’s Germany was building the Siegfried Line, after a heady visit to Barkers in Kensington the week before in aid of a new wardrobe (I especially remember the grey flannel trousers —an exciting change from an elder brother’s hand-me-downs —and elastic-sided ‘house’ shoes) my father drove me to Windsor and a new life.

The ISC was the direct successor to the United Services College at Westward Ho!, Devon, the school immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in Stalky & Co., a story with which I was already very familiar, as I was with his Jungle Books, Just So  Stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Kim, and Rewards and Fairies. The ‘Stalky’ stories had not been my only introduction to boarding school. In the 1920s and 1930s the fictional depiction of public school life was one of the most prominent of all subjects in literature for boys and I feasted on it as eagerly as upon James Fenimore Cooper  (The Pathfinder,The Deerslayer,The Last of the Mohicans) or Percy Fitzpatrick’s Jock of the Bushveldt, those other classics of the time. As a consequence, the news that I might be going to the ISC filled me with eager expectation. Village life had been all very well, but one in which I would be a member of a society as rich in action and friendships as those in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Under Ringwood’s Rule or Cock House at Felsgarth would be fiction-inspired fantasies come true. It was not homesickness that subsequently afflicted me for my first few days at Windsor but an excess of excitement. Less agreeable emotions were waiting in the wings.

AN ANATOMY OF FEAR

The United Services  College at Westward Ho! was founded in 1874  to provide the sons of serving officers  with an education not only less expensive than the older public schools but expressly focussed upon the recently-instituted Army Exam. Appropriately, its crest, now that of the ISC embodied an anchor crossed with a sabre and the motto “Fear God. Honour the King”. The fears that govern the life of the very small boy, feet and arms crossed, sitting on the ground in the front row of a group photograph, taken during the Michaelmas term at Windsor, stem from neither God nor the King, the most and the worst being products of the structure of discipline that pertains in the school. Known generally as the ‘prefectorial system’, it is a structure at this time common to the great majority of public schools, where in Arnoldian tradition it is regarded simply as an aid to “a sense of responsibility”. Here at Windsor, however, developed to an uncommon severity, it is part of preparation for a career in the armed services, where unquestioning compliance with even conspicuously idiotic regulations or orders is indispensable and the main reason why the ISC is reputed to be the “toughest” (some say most brutal) public school in the land.

Clearly, discipline must rest upon an edifice of rules. There are school rules, such as that against smoking; house rules, such as when and where outside footwear must be removed in favour of ‘house shoes’, and other rules (more accurately, conventions) the derivation of which may be obscure or unknown and which have the authority of neither the headmaster nor the house masters, but which nonetheless also govern the pupils’ lives. Of course, responsibility for the maintenance of discipline resides nominally with the headmaster of the entire school, but just as in the army the authority of the colonel of a regiment is delegated downwards through officers and non-commissioned officers, so at the ISC that of the headmaster descends to school prefects and house prefects, known as ‘house officers’. Power, and a good deal of unofficial responsibility, is also exercised by merely senior boys. At the ISC, as in the armed services, seniority is all.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

For a proper appreciation of what our small boy is suffering it is necessary to have an idea of the sort of offences for which it is possible to be called to account. Smoking. Going into town without permission. Failing to turn up when listed on the school sports notices board for a game or a practice or a run. Failing to give sufficient notice of being excused from games on account of sickness or injury. Failing to report for a ‘corps’ (Officer Training Corps) parade. The many other delinquencies include, for example, failure to attend chapel without good reason, or attending with dirty shoes or whilst being otherwise dishevelled, or talking during a service, or being late for a school call-over or talking in the course of it. Anyone not in his proper line in the quadrangle before the bell stops is deemed to be late. All these might be considered as ‘official’ rules.

Then there are the conventions that have the force of rules. It is an offence to cause an ‘affray’, which is to say to appear to be the instigator of a fight or other disturbance. Being scruffily dressed anywhere outside the school premises – in town, for instance, or when walking in Windsor Great Park – is an offence. A boy is ‘scruffy’ if in such a place he fails, inter alia, to wear the school’s regulation boater, or straw hat. No one except a prefect, house officer, or school ‘colour’ (awarded for representing the school at some sport or other) is allowed to have his jacket open and the flaps behind his wrists when his hands are in his pockets, or to have the collar of his overcoat turned up. No boy other than the above-mentioned grandees are allowed to walk on Big Side, the expanse of turf round which the main school buildings are mostly situated and on which activities such as 1st XV rugby (which we called “rugger”) matches take place.

Three times a day a junior may be driven to crime by an instinct for self-preservation. At meals, boys sit from the head of each long refectory table to the bottom in order of seniority determined by the date of their joining the school. A call for a charger of bread, say, or a jug of water, to be passed “up table” must be obeyed instantly and regardless of equitable distribution and consumption. At the lower end of the table, failure to comply is often a consequence of urgent hunger, but is no less an offence.

SIX OF THE BEST

So much for the rules. What of their enforcement? When the birch for the punishment of criminals has long been discontinued as barbaric, parents are threatened with prosecution for smacking their own children and corporal punishment is banned by European law, it must be hard to believe that there was once a time when the beating of boys by other boys was a daily practice in public schools, yet with little dissent it was widely regarded as a necessary aid to education. Masters apart, at the ISC, as largely elsewhere, prefects alone are allowed to beat, but they do so at their own discretion, and since an appeal against a prefect can at best end in no better than a pyrrhic victory, such appeals are unheard of. Acceptance, not protest, is a fundamental constituent of the right military stuff.

Which is not all. At the ISC, the prefectorial beating process is distinguished by a ritual which has been established without wickedness aforethought but which could hardly be more painful for its victims had it been devised by Torquemada himself. It takes place at lunchtime every day except Saturday and Sunday. School meals are eaten in the Victorian Gothic dining hall, which was formerly a chapel. What used to be the organ loft is now the prefects’ room, reached by a spiral staircase from a vestibule. At the end of lunch the prefects range themselves up the spiral, thus commanding a view of everyone leaving the hall. When a prefect sees someone who has committed, or is to be charged with committing an offence (it amounts to the same thing) the individual’s name is called and he is required to wait in the vestibule until the general exodus is complete, at which time the prefects assemble in their room at the head of the stairs and the supposed transgressors are summoned one by one to face them. If guilty as charged (it is almost unheard of for anyone to succeed in establishing his innocence in response to a formal “What have you got to say?”) the boy receives on his backside any number from three to six strokes of a long, pliant cane, the end of which is usually bound with insulating tape not merely to prevent the bamboo splitting, but to increase the area and weight of impact, and thus the degree of pain. The technique of beating is for the arm that holds the cane to be held wide of its owner’s body, and as far behind it as possible, then swept forward with a final wrist movement (as when throwing a stone or cricket ball) and with the bodily momentum of two quick, short, forward paces, thus delivering maximum power. Blood may be drawn.

A WAR OF NERVES

All of which is bad enough when a boy knows that he has been guilty of a transgression, or is to be so charged. The exquisite peculiarity of our small boy’s fear is that he lives in daily dread of being called out for offences with which he has not yet been charged and which he is not aware of having committed. Already in the first five weeks of his first term he has been beaten once for walking on Big Side, once for being late on call-over, twice for the jacket flaps behind hands offence and once for failing to go on a Copper Horse run. (The Copper Horse is an equestrian statue of George III at the top of the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park.) Actually, the boy has never trespassed on Big Side and would never dare to do so. Once, however, walking on the gravel neighbouring the grass, he was so deliberately jostled by someone senior to him, and much bigger, that he fell over the low iron hoops which border the grass and before he could regain the gravel was seen by the captain of Camperdown House. “Arguing” when accused (i.e. trying to establish his lack of guilt without accusing the other boy) was deemed only to have compounded the crime. The call-over beating was a consequence of his falling on the quad gravel while racing to be on time, thus arriving several seconds after the bell and with a badly grazed knee. He had not reported for the Copper Horse run because his name had been added to the list posted on the notice board in the quad after he had looked at it.

In the cases of the Big Side and call-over incidents he was “booked” on the spot and told that he would be called after lunch next day, which gave plenty of time for his peers to regale him with colourful previews of what awaited him. On both occasions of his being named for the jacket and flaps breaches of the rules the after-lunch summons to the organ loft came without warning. The offences had been seen on the previous days and reported. Was he now denying them? Since he had not been aware of committing them he had been unable to deny them. Three strokes of the cane. As for the Copper Horse run: here, a day later, was the list; here was his name. Had he or had he not reported for the run yesterday? Three strokes of the cane.

He is now in the grip of a neurosis. So far as he can remember he has not again walked with hands in pockets and the flaps of his jacket in front of his wrists; but he may have done so, and been seen by a prefect who was in too much of a hurry for an on-the-spot accusation. He thinks he was just in time in getting to place on call-over this morning; but could the prefect on duty have thought otherwise? So far as he knows he has not missed any game or practice for which he was listed, but is it possible that he has scanned the lists too quickly and so failed to see his name?

A SELF APART

That the schoolboy is the self of decades ago there can be no denying, but he stands in relation to me now not as a juvenile version of myself today, but as my own son used to do: body of my own body, yet an individual quite apart, so that as the concern that a father may have for his son cannot sensibly be called self-interest, so the anguish that I feel for the boy cannot fairly be called self-pity. I see him running down Alma (sic) Road, vainly trying to race the bell that clamours from the College quad, desperately striving not to be late for an evening call-over. I feel the nauseous dismay that possesses him when told that he would be summoned after lunch the next day, so that on the rugby field that afternoon he muffs his passes, and in late class earns reprimands, or worse, for “inattention”, and in the dining hall that evening is incapable of eating so that the jokers among his peers, though well knowing the cause of his condition, remark that he is “looking peaky” and with mock solicitude suggest that he ought to report to Matron.

I observe him, too, in a scene that might be comical, but for its essential pathos. It is a Sunday morning in autumn. Just inside Windsor Great Park, at the side of the road which comes from the south-east and runs through the park before entering the outskirts of Windsor town, he is standing with his hands in his overcoat pockets, but not with the collar of the coat turned up, watching the traffic coming from the direction of Ascot. He has been there for about an hour and in all that time has not missed a car. The one he is expecting will be like no other that is likely to come along. Which is just the trouble, and the reason why the boy has chosen to wait for it here and not inside the main gates of the school, where other boys are waiting for the arrival of whoever may be coming to take them out. Here in the park, no one will witness the meeting. No one will see that his father is driving a high-off-the-road, khaki-coloured, long-bodied Humber Tourer with a brass radiator and a faded, folding canvas top; an antique of a car which one day will be worth a small fortune, but which on this Sunday in 1938, in contrast with the smart saloons (the Wolseys, the Rileys, the Alvises, a Rolls or Bentley or two) that the parents of other boys will arrive in, will not fail to be remarked on to the increase of a considerably more serious discomfort from which the child currently suffers.

In our present era of cultivated upper class cockney, the heyday of the glottal stop, is it believable that a child who arrived at a minor public school speaking in the lightly muddied accents acquired by his years as a village boy should have been an object of unkind curiosity? “What prep school did you go to Bertie”? In years to come, the disparaging appellation for a boy of questionable background will be “Charlie”. Now, it is “Bertie”. Much too late; when he is worldly wise and able to laugh about it, Bertie will reproach himself for not having boldly and truthfully answered “Saint Peter’s”, which was the name of his village school. His tormentors should mind their own business, he says. Which according to one of the more senior and larger of them (a Flashman look-alike) is “bloody rude”, coming from “a new tick”.

And so on. And so inevitably forth in a self-perpetuating process of provocation, reaction and retaliation: fights and punishment for fighting; some inflicted on Bertie alone and conspicuously unjust (“Cet animal est très méchant. Quand on l’attaque, il se défend”.); some, imposed by higher authority, undiscriminating and so far as Bertie is concerned no less inequitable. In telling his parents to meet him in the privacy of Windsor Great Park Bertie is not being cowardly, but playing safe.

*   *   *   *

NEXT FRIDAY, 30th November.  Chapter Two, part II.

REPORTING HOME

Home for Christmas at the end of his first term, Bertie is not interrogated about beatings or any other disagreeabilities, but his mother wants to hear about the fagging. Twenty years hence fagging will be on its way out. Now, at the time of Bertie’s boarding school début, it is a long and well established convention, approved of by the great Dr.Arnold himself. What it entails varies infinitely from school to school. In general, it is roughly true to say that it is junior boys acting to a greater or lesser degree as the personal servants of significantly more senior ones. Duties may include almost anything from cleaning dirty rugger boots to making toast for study tea……………………………….

The last house photograph in which he appears shows him stern of face, arms folded, sitting beside the House Master on the other side of whom is a future captain of Royal Marines who will be killed near Arromanches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. On his right is Martin One, who will die in a Cromwell tank on the outskirts of Bremen and whose brother, Martin Two,  will fly a Lancaster to Berlin, but will not return.

____________

*  Tennyson


THE FADING MARGIN, by Nigel Buxton

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

TENNYSON

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

When he enlisted in the army in October, 1941, Nigel Buxton was still at boarding school. A year and a half later, following six months at the University of Glasgow on a special War Office course, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery for almost five years during which he was a junior officer on active service in France and Germany, a light aircraft pilot, an assistant adjutant in India during the last days of the Raj and ADC to the general commanding Special Force 401 in Iraq. Demobilised in 1947, soon obliged to abandon a fancy for becoming a film director, he became successively an employee of a major oil company, an Oxford graduate in history, tutor in South Africa to the son and heir of one of the world’s most powerful industrialists and deputy press officer with a leading UK manufacturer of drugs and chemicals.

While still an undergraduate he had articles published in The Spectator. Later, other successful freelance writing led to his living and working in Mallorca under the aegis of Robert Graves before joining the Sunday Telegraph at its inception in 1961 as regular columnist and travel editor. His published works have included the  Penguin Guide to Travel In EuropeAmerica, and the  award-winning Walking in Wine Country, a consequence of five years exploring the vineyards of France on foot. He has been a contributor to numerous publications, was a founder  member of the International Consultative Committee for the French National Tourist Office and belongs to the Circle of Wine Writers.

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CHAPTER ONE

 A Village Boy

The flower pot race for 6-year-olds at my Sussex village school took place in flawless weather on the headmaster’s lawn the day before Sports Day itself.  The texture and weight of the rough earthenware flower pots as I lifted them alternately is still with me along with the awareness of balancing first on one leg, then on the other in precarious progression towards the winning tape. I can still smell the close-cut turf and the warm rubber of my plimsolls. (We had never heard of ‘gym shoes’). It is certain that I cared very much whether I won or lost, but there is no recollection of either victory or defeat.

As anyone born when Kellogg’s Cornflakes were in their infancy could testify, there was a time when summers were never anything but perfect; when their taste was that of cucumber and egg sandwiches and home-made lemonade and their scent that of new-mown grass; when there was always haymaking in the long afternoons and in the coppice behind the cottage doves cooed from dawn to dark. If there is no meteorological record of droughts lasting from May to September I cannot help it; I write only of what memory holds to be true.

Dominated by its 13th-century Norman church, the village had from earlier than Domesday grown around a junction of North-South, East-West tracks through what may once have been a forest that covered the whole of the Weald between the North and South Downs. Mid-20th century maps and plans clearly show that, almost without exception, all building other than that of the church had even until then been confined to the margins of the last few hundred yards of the roads themselves before the junction. There were no side or back streets. At the time of my birth, and for many years thereafter, at the foot of the short and very gentle rise on which the church stood were a busy blacksmith’s forge and a mediaeval cottage with a sweet shop where Granny Grafton sold liquorice and sherbert by the pennyworth. A few yards away, in the churchyard, a low mound crowned by an ancient yew was reputed to mark the mass grave of victims of the Black Death.

From the ill-defined centre of the village a stile and 5-bar wooden gate gave immediate access to a meadow where the haymaking was done only by men working with horses. Tractors were still uncommon. To the west of the church the path that skirted the recreation ground, the school yard and the allotments (upon which many  a villager’s economy depended) led directly into point-to-point country. Not a quarter of a mile over the hill to the north of the church was the farm from which we children fetched the milk in a tin can, swinging it round our heads without spilling it in demonstration of centrifugal force.

There was no money in the family, whereby hangs a tale of a grandfather’s financial disaster, a grandmother’s suicide, a father’s catastrophic deprivation (including the enforced end of schooling) at the age of 16,  his loving but injudiciously early marriage and a world war followed by a depression. By the time I reached infancy three boys, the eldest born in 1912, had already left home, three more and a girl remained and my father had become a sort of general factotum on a country estate. Later, when adolescent snobbery wreaked its contemptible, but nonetheless cruel worst, there was a faintly consoling suggestion that we had somehow come down in the world. “The people that care don’t matter, and the people that matter don’t care”, was a well-worn maxim that my father was fond of but which, I was to discover, was only partly true.

A KIND OF POVERTY

Though far from indigent, we were nevertheless  poor enough to be living in a cottage which for my first five years was without electricity and in which, for all of my childhood, the only running water came from a tank in the roof that was itself supplied by means of a hand pump. There was no hot water on tap. Poor enough for new clothes to be rare and pocket money to be a “Saturday penny”. Poor enough for roast beef to be a luxury, wild rabbit to be a staple of the family menu and for my mother to burst into tears when I lost the half crown (two shillings and sixpence) with which I had been sent on an errand. Poor enough for her to fret about the extravagance of sending household linen to the laundry and for illness to be feared as much for its economic as its medical considerations. We were a quarter of a century short of the Beveridge Report and the birth of the Welfare State.

Thanks to  parental love and fortitude of a kind now hard to contemplate without emotions too intense for advertisement, we children were never at risk of being in any way significantly deprived, and for my first eleven years I was happily a village boy. Twice a day I walked the half-mile between school and home. Often in the lunch hour, and at the cost of my mother’s unease —but she knew I loved it— I rode in the baker’s van on his local rounds. After school when the days were long enough, and during weekends and holidays, by far the most of my time was spent in the fields and woods: damming streams, making rafts on ponds, angling for roach, stealing the eggs of moorhens and pigeons, building tree houses or huts in the hazel coppices, where sometimes Wills Woodbine or Players Weight cigarettes at a cost of twopence for five would be smoked. If for some reason I was confined to the cottage’s own half acre I was likely as not to be making a dugout or constructing a cart from old pram wheels and whatever wooden boxes were to hand. My dearest wish (I desired it with a fervour not equalled until puberty and girls ruined the blessed simplicity of childhood) was to have a bicycle of some sort. Any sort. I vividly recall the thrill of being able to freewheel downhill on the wreck of an old machine that I had found somewhere or other. There was no drive chain and the pedal mechanism was irreparably jammed. Facilely, I reason now that it might have been a desire for mobility, and in mobility a kind of freedom, that conditioned such passion. No other contemporary possession, or none that I can remember, gave me such satisfaction.

 “I am part of all that I have met …”. Yet of the myriad influences that shape a man some must surely be more significant than others. Out of the mists that drift over that landscape of childhood certain features emerge with unfailing clarity. There is an innocent self-confidence, which in spite of the later assaults of a middle class education that might expressly have been designed to destroy it, survived into early adult life. Innocent because it had nothing to do with conceit; was not debased by arrogance or unmerited presumption. Absence of self-doubt might better describe it. It seemed, or seems to me now, as if I could always achieve what I set out to achieve. “Do your damnedest”, my father used to say, and the natural order of things was to do it. I liked coming top in class and frequently did so. I liked winning races (“Never look over your shoulder to see what anyone else is doing”) and as often as not won them. One of life’s enduring curiosities is that my prize for winning the 440 yards for 12-year-olds in 1936 on my last Sports Day at the village school was a set of fish knives and forks.

SINGING IN THE CHOIR

Then there is a memory of what collectively I  call “religion” but which embraces an array (in today’s media jargon it would be a “raft”) of individually recognisable components. I had an outstandingly good singing voice that was routinely required at matins and evensong every Sunday for some four or five years in the church choir. Besides Sunday services there were weddings and funerals (more of the latter than the former, I have the impression) for which members of the choir were sometimes paid a few eagerly sought-after shillings. There were expeditions to choral events around the country, most memorably to the annual Festivals of English Church Music in Canterbury or Chichester cathedrals. Small wonder that large parts of the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Common Prayer and the English Church Hymnal remain almost as familiar to me as best-loved nursery rhymes. Small wonder that among the indestructible sensory souvenirs of those very early years, the one an ineffaceable memorandum of formal death, the other of sanctity, are the scents of arum – “funeral” – lilies and (head bent in prayer, nose in close contact with the back of the one in front) of the oak of which some of the newer pews in the village church were made.

SALUTING THE FLAG

Quaintly – incredibly, as it must seem to many a reader – and to change metaphors, recollections ever to the fore in any cavalcade of childhood reminiscences are those that might march under a banner emblazoned “Honour and Duty”. Each 24th May, Empire Day was celebrated, for which event armfuls of decorative branches and blooms were carried to school. A copper beech tree evokes for me still an enthusiastic chorus of treble voices, accompanied by a vigorously played upright piano, in a song whose opening line was Now let us all salute the flag. The scent of lilac resurrects the sense of occasion felt as – hand raised to head in regulation military fashion for the last verse – we beseech some power or other to ensure that “the flag may ever fly in honour far and wide and be for ever down the years our nation’s love and pride”.

That 24th May was the birthday of Queen Victoria, the Queen Empress, was a fact of which one might be ignorant, as indeed I was, but that it was a day as deserving of mandatory observance as November 11th, Armistice Day, was unquestioned. That the flag of Great Britain might come to be painted on the torsos of beer-swilling young men or used as a wrap by semi-naked young women at football matches would have seemed hardly more improbable or less outrageous than the idea of a popular musical called Jesus Christ, Superstar. But Indian Independence and the end of Empire were yet in the unimaginable future and “colonial” had not yet been developed as a pejorative. It was with quasi-religious respect that we saluted the Union Jack.

Under the same banner in the cavalcade, wearing dark blue shorts of itchy serge, dark stockings with green garters below the knee, a khaki shirt, a green neckerchief, a lanyard and ‘Baden-Powell’ hat, is a twelve-year-old in the uniform of the Boy Scouts. I had wanted the uniform almost as much as I wanted a bicycle and almost as much as, at one time, I had wanted tame pigeons. “I promise on my honour to do my duty to God and the King,  to help other people at all times and to obey the Scout law”. Less than three decades since the movement’s foundation in 1908 by Baden-Powell, the hero of Mafeking, had not been time enough wholly to erode its cardinal ethos, so that although strict juvenile observance of its enrolment pledge might be wanting, its ideals – coincident as they were with parental precepts – could hardly have failed to influence any but the most unimpressionable child.

GRAMMAR SCHOOL

At the age of eleven I finished with the village school and started at Collyer’s, a 16th century Mercer’s Company foundation of the kind that used to be among the finest educational establishments in the kingdom. Now, to the rougher of my village contemporaries I became a “grammar school puppy dog”, an object of disdain, distinguished principally by a regulation cap and tie. But now I had my bicycle. The school was eight miles from home. There was a bus, but it cost money. Five days a week, sometimes on Saturday as well, I and the brother nearest to me in age pedalled the sixteen miles there and back, calm or storm, rain or shine; in winter, always in the dark, our ways dimly illuminated by the sort of paraffin oil lamp that is now a collector’s item or by the slightly brighter light of carbide-generated acetylene gas (a considerable technological improvement), or (most advanced and prestigious of all) by dynamo. With such technical limitations, rear lights tended to be impractical and were in any case not compulsory. When the weather was foul we were enveloped in overtrousers and oilskin capes.

Over one stretch of the route there was a climb of several hundred yards, aptly called Long Hill, for which we were obliged either to dismount and walk, or to zig zag from side to side of the road, standing on our pedals, or (more dangerously than we were inclined to think) to grab a hold on the side or tail of a slow-moving lorry. The homeward descent was a breeze, in the course of which we could attain perilously high speeds. Safety hats did not exist. Granted, traffic on country roads three quarters of a century ago compared with conditions today was as a trickle of water to a river in flood, but that we survived without serious injury is today hardly credible.

Either documentary or anecdotal, there is scant record of those grammar school years. That there was a continuation of earlier athletic form is suggested by my present possession of a heavy bronze medal in a satin-lined case which celebrates someone of my name having been declared Junior Victor Ludorum in the summer of 1937. Otherwise, on the analyst’s couch, items of recall are few and curious (“Our memories are card-indexes consulted, and then put back in disorder by authorities whom we do not control”, said Cyril Connolly). There is digging for what we called “pig nuts” under the oaks in the school grounds, much-prized delicacies that I now suppose to have been a species of truffle. There is my being chased by a senior boy whom I had in some way grossly provoked and who, having caught me, proceeded to rub my face in a bed of nettles until restrained by a merciful sixth-former. There is the pleasure of eating egg and tomato sandwiches as part of the packed lunch that was brought each day from home.

Lastly, there are remnants of first nights of the school’s renowned productions of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. I was a fairy in Iolanthe and a little maid from school in The Mikado.

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 NEXT FRIDAY.  Chapter Two: ‘Bertie & Co’  (Public school).

The Imperial Service College at Windsor was the direct successor to the United Services College at Westward Ho!, Devon, the school immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in Stalky & Co., a story with which I was already very familiar…………… the news that I might be going to the ISC filled me with eager expectation. Village life had been all very well, but one in which I would be a member of a society as rich in action and friendships as those in ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, ‘Under Ringwood’s Rule ‘or ‘Cock House at Felsgarth’ would be fiction-inspired fantasies come true. It was not homesickness that afflicted me for my first few days as a boarder but an excess of excitement. Less agreeable emotions were waiting in the wings.


Morgon by Moonlight

Today is the official release day for beaujolais nouveau. MORGON is one of the most robust of all the wines of Beaujolais and usually needs several years before being at its best.

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At the Château de Pizay, in the Beaujolais, I had a rendezvous with Lucien, a representative from the regional tourist organization, whose intention it had been to take me to dinner at a restaurant in nearby Belleville where the food, he had said, was good and authentically regional and the atmosphere ‘très sympathique’. Now, over an aperitif  before leaving the Château, he wondered if I might care to try something altogether different. A good friend of his was the daughter of a vigneron in Morgon. She and her sister were coming up from Lyon for the weekend and he had promised to meet them off the train at Belleville at five o’clock and take them to their parents’ place just a few kilometres along the road. The harvest was in full swing on the family property and we could have supper with the vendangeurs.  It might be fun.

The family property was typical of the Beaujolais: a farmhouse of terracotta-coloured stone and indeterminate age and a farmyard no tidier or more elegant than working farmyards normally are, with assorted outbuildings and a litter of farm equipment, including two tractors with metal trailers hooked up. Madame Durance was a good-looking, cheerful woman in her fifties who apologised for not shaking hands, since they were covered in flour. Monsieur Durance was not yet back from calling on the wine-maker in Villié-Morgon to whom he sold his grapes. Her husband was a grower only. Her notably attractive daughters, Gabrielle and Véronique, (it crossed my mind that Lucien’s  proposed change of plan might not have been wholly altruistic) who had made it clear on the way from the station that they had not come for a lazy weekend, but to help their mother feed the grape-pickers, put on aprons and started laying a long trestle table at one side of the very large kitchen. Lucien and I helped. When Monsieur Durance at last appeared he looked as though he had just had a good scrub. He had slightly greying hair and was wearing a bottle-green corduroy shirt with blue denim trousers. (Très gai!’ remarked Gabrielle). Though welcoming enough, he was sparing with words. It had been a very good harvest so far, he said: quantity good, quality excellent. Pas mal du tout.’

Grape-harvest suppers are generally jolly, joyful occasions: the work is hard, the hours necessarily long, the pleasure of stopping work particularly great and the camaraderie usually self-sustaining. Grape-growers have a tradition of feeding their workers well, if only out of self-interest, and wine flows freely at table, even if it is not always literally du pays. It is an opportunity for everyone to let their hair down and have a happy time. At first, Gabrielle and Véronique were kept busy putting food on the table for the dozen or so hungry and thirsty young men and women pickers, all of whom were French and from Clermont-Ferrand.

When everyone had finished the charcuterie and was busy with the main course – a hearty beef ragoût – the sisters joined their father, Lucien and me at one end of the table and started on their own supper. Glasses were filled with a wine which Monsieur Durance described as un bon petit Gamay de la commune’ and then filled again. I encouraged my host to talk about wine and he was scathing not only about beaujolais nouveau, but also about what he called fashions in crus: one year Fleurie was all the rage, the next year Brouilly, the year after that, something else. The négociants did it just so as to manipulate prices. He was glad he was only a grower, not a wine-maker. His father and grandfather had been growers too. A cobbler ought to stick to his last.

‘Not a wine-maker!’ exclaimed Véronique. ‘What a story!’ (Quelle histoire!’).

With mock solemnity Monsieur Durance informed her that his ‘quelques bouteilles’ were just his little hobby: he was no Georges Dubœuf! *

At the end of dinner, Monsieur Durance announced that since the picking was going so well he would like to propose a little celebration: we would go and drink a bottle of ‘the ’83’. Now, the significance of Véronique’s ironic remark about her father’s not being a wine maker became apparent. In an open barn at one side of the farmyard was a neat, high stack of old, dry vine roots. Behind the stack, a door in the stone wall and some steps led down into a cellar lit by a single bare electric bulb. A wooden vat, an old-fashioned vertical, slatted press, several far-from-new casks and a row of large stainless-steel jugs constituted the image of a traditional wine-making cave. Through a low arch another short flight of stone steps gave access to a storage cellar.

While Monsieur Durance left us briefly for the lower level, his daughters lit the six half-burned candles in a pyramid-shaped wrought-iron holder —‘Il est très ritualiste,explained Véronique— before switching off the electric bulb.

Her father returned with a basket containing several unlabelled bottles from which he proceeded to draw the corks. First, we tasted a two-year-old wine, which was tannic and without any Beaujolais charm. ‘You see: not drinkable!’ exclaimed Monsieur Durance. ‘But if I lived by selling wine instead of just growing grapes I would have sold it and someone would be paying to drink it.’ Next, we sampled ‘the ‘83’, which I thought very drinkable indeed. ‘Promising! ’, said Monsiur Durance. At five years old it was one of the oldest beaujolais I had ever tasted, a revelation in flavours and appearance. Held up to the candle-flames, it was still a lovely garnet colour. Though it was as cool as the lower cellar, its ‘nose’ was seductive and the taste so complex as to challenge the imagination and descriptive powers of the taster. ‘No chaptalization, no filtering: only racking,’ said Monsieur Durance.

It was not very sensible at that hour, but there was no spitting: we drank the bottle; then another. It was even less prudent to start on a fifteen-year-old marc, which Monsieur Durance said came from a friend of his. When the subject of going to bed was raised at last it was unanimously agreed that no responsible person could possibly take the wheel of a car, so I would have to stay more or less where I was.

My host went off to his own bed. The rest of us took our glasses and went outside to decide whether the moon was full.

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See Victoria Moore’s Telegraph blog for up-to-date thoughts on beaujolais.