BOOK REVIEW / Top of the class: 'The Oxford Book of Schooldays' - ed Patricia Craig, 17.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IF THERE are five hours of lessons in a school day and 34 weeks in a school year, then a child who leaves at 16 will have had 7,650 hours of teaching. Since even the dullest child - if made to concentrate fully - could reach GCSE standard in 1,650 hours, the biggest question of all our schooldays is: what happened to the other 6,000?

Gossip, sexual fantasy and drawing three-dimensional boxes provide only part of the answer. Of all the contributors to Patricia Craig's anthology, Tom Paulin (in Fivemiletown, 1987) seems to have wasted his time most enjoyably - with his desk-mate Eileen:

Hers was a little plum,

mine a scaldy that could pee

yella as the tartan skirt

she slid one tiny bit

to let me touch her pumice-silk,

chalky like my glans might be.

He had the advantage of co-education, advocated with formidable clarity by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792: 'Were boys and girls permitted to pursue the same studies together, those graceful decencies might early be inculcated which produce modesty without those sexual distinctions that taint the mind.' Hmm . . . see me afterwards, Paulin.

But most of the contributors have been to single-sex establishments, and most of these to private or public schools. There is thus a considerable amount of whacking and fagging and general Bunterishness, though this is not altogether Ms Craig's fault. You can only anthologise what is in print, and although the comprehensive system has produced a language ('truanting' pupils may be 'scapegoated' or even 'statemented'), it has yet to produce much literature.

Ms Craig confronts the problem in the section called 'A Dreadful Schism in the British Nation'. Here she has put most of the rough stuff, prefaced by a pungent line from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1916): 'A poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.' A L Rowse and D J Enright are two such emancipees represented, though their scholarship escape routes took them out of the appalling conditions described by Robert Roberts in The Classic Slum (1971).

Life in the toffs' schools was not much better. In 1825 James Milnes Gaskell wrote home from Eton that Wood has been bullying Ashley minimus. The two agreed to settle it by fisticuffs over two and a quarter hours. Ashley was killed and Wood hanging by a thread at the time of writing. Soon afterwards, Wellington College was founded for the sons of officers killed in action. The governors, fearing that traditional public school discipline was a charter for sissies, modelled their own college on the lines of the Prussian gymnasium. On the first day the master, E W Benson, addressed his 60 shivering charity boys with such ferocity that the entire school ran away.

The best evocation of the comic hell of public school - intense, poignant, but essentially trivial - is John Betjeman's in Summoned by Bells. It is not at once clear why a loosely-handled iambic pentameter should be the ideal vehicle for this task (perhaps the rhythm represents the discipline, and the liberties he takes with it mimic the subversion), but the Percival Mandeville episode encapsulates in a page and a half the emotions many prose writers struggle with for whole books.

This was not a realisation ever acquired by Cyril Connolly. While most sane adults would begin each day with a prayer of thanks for never having been elected into anything so embarrassingly named as 'Pop', Connolly and other Etonians seem to have let their lives be ruined by such 'failures'. As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in 1961: 'The thing that struck me about (public schoolboys) was their passionate entanglement in their schooldays . . . No one ever seems to forget Eton. I easily forgot my Borough Secondary School.' Not only that, but Mugg met girls who'd never had to refer to someone as 'M'Tutor'.

Reviewers of anthologies traditionally like to patronise the compiler with a few suggestions from their own reading. But Patricia Craig has done her job too well. She has not only found a classic bit of Kingsley Amis from one of his best, but lesser known, books (What Became of Jane Austen?), but she has rescued an equally good bit of Evelyn Waugh from one of his worst, A Little Learning. That is good editing.

One tentative suggestion I would make is that it might have been worthwhile to have had more from the teacher's viewpoint. Even this springs from the fact that the bits Ms Craig does have - Derek Mahon, 'Teaching in Belfast' (1979), and Alan Ross on how school heroes become dismal teachers in 'The Golden Apples' (1986) - are so enjoyable. The verse in anthologies is often the most skippable part; here it is the best.

Beneath the surface jollity, this is a slightly melancholy book. The history of English education (and it is English, by and large, not British that Patricia Craig deals with) is not something that fills the heart with pride. The 'dreadful schism' brings out the worst of the English in both sectors: a sacrifice of high standards to dogma and meanness. Then there is the question of those missing 6,000 hours - a great slice of childhood lost in tedium, though perhaps even that tedium is better than this agony from Westminster, c1750, with its heartbreaking postscript:

My dear, dear Mother,

If you don't let me come home, I die - I am all over ink, and my fine clothes have been spoilt - I have been tost in a blanket, and seen a ghost.

I remain, my dear, dear mother,

Your dutiful and most unhappy son,


PS Remember me to my father.