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 It is thought to have been unpublished since.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."