21 JANUARY 1938, Page 12



MY father used to have hanging on his bathroom wall a photographic group of young men in evening dress with bright blue waistcoats. They were, I think, the officials' of an Oxford undergraduate wining club, but with their side-whiskers and heavy moustaches they had more the appearance of Liberal Ministers. Earnest and well-informed, they hardly seemed to be members of the same world as Jack Harkaway, whose adventures at Oxford were published in twopenny numbers—or bound together in two volumes at 6d. apiece—by the " Boys of England " office some time in the early 'eighties. They seem, sitting there on hard dining- room chairs, squarely facing the camera, to hark back more naturally to that much earlier Oxford described by Newman, when Letters on the Church by an Episcopalian was a book to make the blood boil—" One of our common friends told me, that, after reading it, he could not keep still, but went on walking up and down his room." But unless we are to disbelieve the literary evidence of Jack Hathaway at 04ord, the earnest moustache is deceptive : it is the bright blue waistcoat which is the operative image, and I like to imagine that my father's photograph contains the whole galaxy— Tom Carden, Sir Sydney Dawson, Fabian Hall, Harvey and the Duke of Woodstock—of what must have . been known universally as a Harkaway year, for in i88:— Harkaway succeeded in the then unprecedented feat of winning his Blue for rowing, cricket and football and ending the academic year with a double-first. All this too in spite of the many attempts upon his life and honour engineered by Davis of Singapore whom he had baffled while still a schoolboy in the East. Their reunion at Sir Sydney Dawson's " wine "r is an impressive scene—impressive too in its setting :

" A variety of wines were upon the table with all sorts of biscuits and preserved fruits. Olives, however, seemed to be the most popular. A box of cigars, which cost four guineas, invited the attention of smokers. . . . Jack walked over to a tall, effeminate looking young man, with a pale complexion, and having his hair parted in the middle.

" How do, Kemp ? ' he said.

" Ah, how do ? ' replied Kemp, with a peculiar smile. Allow me to introduce you to my friend, Mr. Frank Davis, of Singapore.'

" Jack stared in amazement. Before him was his sworn and determined enemy. Davis had told him that he was going to England to complete his education at a University. He had added that wherever Jack was, he would still hate him, and seek for his revenge. . . . That it was Davis of Singapore he had no doubt. He had lost one ear.

"Making a cold and distant bow, Davis replied= Mr. Harkaway and I have met before.'

" Really ! ' exclaimed Kemp. I'm glad of that. It's such a nuisance helping fellows to talk. Davis is not in our college. He's a Merton man.' "

It was unwise of Harkaway towards the end of this same " wine " to transfix Kemp's hand to the table with a fork when he detected him cheating at cards. The incident led directly to the corruption of Sir Sydney with drink so that he could not ride in the steeple-chase against the Duke of Woodstock's horse, Kemp up ; to Jack's imprisonment for debt on the eve of the Boat Race (but the Jew's beautiful daughter Hilda, whom he had saved from drowning in the Cher, foiled that plot) ; to the kidnapping of Hilda and Emily, Jack's betrothed, by Davis and the Duke of Woodstock (" Let's have—aw—one kiss before we part,' said the Duke, with an amorous glance in Hilda's direction. ' Dash my—aw—buttons, but one kiss."') ; to the foul attempt on Jack's life in a railway train, and to Kemp setting Emily alight—a rather bizarre episode :

" He approached Emily, who was standing with her back to him in her muslin ball dress, looking very gauzy and fairylike.

" Drawing a wax. match from his pocket, he struck it gently, and held it under her skirt lighting the inflammable material in three places.

" Then he retired with the same snakelike, gliding manner."

The story is, of course, a sensational one (it isn't often that an undergraduate arrives in Oxford with so teeming a past, and with a private tutor—Mr. Mole—who had been secretly married to a black woman in the east), but its chief value, I think, lies in its incidentals : the still-life of an Oxford breakfast—" At ten o'clock a very decent breakfast stood on the table, consisting of cold game, hot fish, Strasbourg patties, honey in the comb, tea and coffee, with other trifles " ; in the delightful turns of phrase : " Do you dine in Hall ? '

" No, we have ordered our mutton at the Mitre

and the local manners : " What shall we do ? '

" Go and screw Scraper up,' said an undergraduate in his second year.

" Splendid ! ' replied Sir Sydney Dawson. Get a hammer and gimlet and some screws.'

" Mr. Scraper was an unpopular tutor, and they did not care for consequences. . . . The Dean heard the noise, and summoning two tutors, went with the porter carrying a lantern to the scene of the disturbance.

" What is the matter, Mr. Scraper ? ' said the Dean.

" I am screwed up, sir,' said Mr. Scraper."

One notices in this wild scene outside Mr. Scraper's window an odd change in the character of one college : " A friend of Dawson's who was a Brasenose man sank on his knees overcome by wine, and began to recite a portion of Demosthenes' oration on the crown."

But above all I value the book for its picture of Sir Sydney Dawson, imprudent, good-hearted, arrogant, the apotheosis of the wining club. With his aristocratic brutality and his spendthrift kindliness, he must have been every inch a blue waistcoat. Take, for example, the incident of the explosive cigars in Sir Sydney's room : " I keep them for my tradesmen. The fellows come here worrying for orders and I give them a cigar, which soon starts them,' replied the baronct laughing," but when he had blown up Mr. Mole, scorched his face and tumbled him in a bowl of goldfish, he feels for the tutor—" By Jove, this is not right. I must write a letter of apology." In the theatre " as if to show his contempt for Oxford society, Sir Sydney Dawson took out his handsome cigar-case, and lighted up, though he knew it was against the rules," but his treatment of Franklin who does lines for commoners in return for a consideration (" I am one of the servitors of the college. Perhaps you do not know what that is,' he added with a sad smile ") shows he has a kind heart. " I wonder what a poor man at Oxford is like. I should like to see him. Perhaps an hour or two with a poor man would do me good, always supposing he's a gentleman. I can't stand a cad.' " It may be argued, of course, that, because the author, Edwin J. Brett, had never been to Oxford, this whole setting is imaginary, an Oxford of the heart, but I do not see why the well-known argument in favour of immortality should not apply here too—that " an instinct does not exist unles3 there is a possibility of its being satisfied," and certainly the instinct exists in this confused uncertain age—a will to return to Sir Sydney's reckless self-assurance and his breakfasts, to " a mutton at the Mitre," a dog-cart " spanking along thy; Iffley Road," to screwing Scraper up.