Auden: How school taught me about fascism

A battered notebook with the poet's reflections on public school is to be sold. Marianne Macdonald reports

Evelyn Waugh claimed anyone who had been to an English public school would feel comparatively at home in prison, but the poet W H Auden likens his experience of public school to living in a fascist state, in a rare account of his school days to be auctioned in March. The battered hardback notebook, estimated at £1,000 to £1,500, contains reflections on life at his school, Gresham's, written in crabbed longhand by Auden,whose poetry gained popular appeal recently after being quoted in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The former Oxford Professor of Poetry, who died in 1993, wrote The Liberal Fascist. Gresham's School, Holt in 1934 aged 27 for publication in The Old School, a book edited by Graham Greene. It is thought to have been unpublished since.

The 11-page manuscript, with Auden's scratched-out signature at the end, displays an uneven blend of naivety and perception. It begins with a description of himself when young, a frank counterpoint to the famous comparison of his face, in old age, resembling a wedding cake left out in the rain.

"I must begin with a description of myself at that time. The son of book-loving Anglo-Catholic parents of the professional class, the youngest of three brothers, I was - and in most respects still am - mentally precocious, physically backward, short-sighted, a rabbit at all games, very untidy and grubby, a nail-biter, a physical coward, dishonest, sentimental, with no community sense whatever, in fact a typical little highbrow and difficult child," he writes in the notebook, to be sold by Phillips on 16March.

He claims that location is the first condition for a successful public school, condemns masters without outside interests as "spiritual vampires", and bitterly recalls the sarcasm they displayed. "A certain master once caught me writing poetry in prep, writing a poem which I knew to be a bad one. He said: `You shouldn't waste your sweetness on the desert air like this Auden', and even today I cannot think of him without wishing him evil."

Other observations reveal a more childish tone. On the subject of fagging and school dinners he writes: "Fagging during one's first year or so was extremely light, hot water was plentiful, and the cooking, if undistinguished - no one seems ever to have solved the problem of school maids who are inordinately slatternly and inefficient - was quite adequate."

But he attacked the so-called "Honour System" at the school, whereby boys were encouraged to sneak if they found one another smoking, swearing, or doing anything indecent.

"I feel compelled to say that I believe no more potent engine for turning them into remote introverts, for perpetuating those very faults of character which it was intended to cure, was ever devised," Auden observes.

"It meant that the whole of one's life was based on fear, on fear of the community, not to mention the temptation it offered to the natural informer, and fear is not a healthy basis. It makes one dishonest and unadventurous. The best reason I have for opposing fascism is that at school I lived in a fascist state."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?