THE FADING MARGIN: serial 3Posted: November 30, 2012
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
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.)
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.
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.
NEXT FRIDAY, 7th December. Chapter Three: Officer Cadet.