14 MARCH 1958, Page 8

John Bull's Schooldays

Dead From the Waist Down

DEAR MR. ATKINS, By JOHN BETJEMAN I am glad to have this opportunity, after about forty years of nursing a grievance, to tell the public how deeply I resented your treatment of me at school. You seemed to me a very old man when I suffered hours of boredom from your teaching. You must be 'nearly a hundred now— but it is only those whom the gods love who die young. 1 make no apology for addressing you in the public prints, for even in your old age you must be too smug and complacent to be aware that what I have to say is addressed to you. And no one who recognises this easily identifiable portrait will dare to tell you; you are quite un- approachable.

There have been more obviously repulsive schoolmasters than you in my life. There was — who stood us in a ring and asked us ques- tions in mental arithmetic. When we could not answer he used to shake us by the shoulders until we cried (he had his favourites, of course, who were not shaken and did not cry). There was who used to beat us with the handle of a canoe paddle, taking the faintest excuse to indulge him- self in this-pleasure. Both those men were jolly old sadists; you, were a sadist of a different sort. I have been a schoolmaster myself and, despite a very bad reference from my tutor at. Oxford, Mr. C. S. Lewis, managed to secure posts at two different schools. I know how irritating boys can be and how inevitable it is that some are less sympathetic to one than others. But I do not think even under .the greatest provocation I was ever the mental sadist that you are. Perhaps that is because I am a masochist.

You thought of yourself, and, I .dare say still think of yourself, as a sort of ancient Greek—a Spartan rather than an Athenian—who had embraced a cold-bath Christianity, if the particu- lar form of ,puritanism which you follow can be called Christianity. 1 heard a tale that when you were at the university you were given to loose living and that once when you were tempted to drink an extra half-pint of bitter, an angel ap- peared to you and said, 'Chuck it, Atkins'; from that day you never looked back.

No words can express your arrogance and self- satisfaction as a teacher. You were, I sup- pose, one of that worst type of school- master : the sort who thinks he ought really to have been a don at Oxford or Cambridge—the type who bores his pupils with the minutite of subtle textual criticism. And of course those boys who knew how to flatter your arrogance earned your attention. Some have since done well in the Treasury; others are your counterpart at various schools. But I, as a then unsophisticated exhibitionist, could never draw your attention to myself. I tried every sort of irritating device, but you became more and more Spartan and pure. YOu never even asked me to tea, as you did the more favoured boys. One word of kindness in those tedious hours would have won my heart. Such a word was never uttered. When the time for English essays came round, the only time that I thought 'I had a chance of standing on an equal footing with those future Treasury officials and dons inanques, you dismissed' the great efforts I made either by completely ignoring my essays or once by saying, `Betjeman, you're showing off.'

You had pretensions to literary taste and now and then would break off to read us two or three stanzas from your favourite poet. It never oc- curred to you to vary our diet. As an example of your crass insensibility you made us wade through a late nineteenth-century epic about ancient Greece, reading it out by turns, at a time when we were doing Homer in the original Greek. We did Homer with the aid of a standard English trans- lation, which, though arty and crafty enough, at any rate conveyed something of the quality of Homer's high-sciunding epic. How you could have thought that the bogus medivevalism of the churned-out couplets could have had any bearing on the Greek we were reading 1 have often won- dered. At the time, I thought that this dreary stuff was merely another form of penal servitude you had invented and did not associate it with Homer at all. Nor do I now. The results of the years of boredom punctured by acute moments of humilia- tion I suffered under your arid guidance have been that I' cannot remember a line of Greek today, and what little liking I have for Latin comes from other masters who tutored me.

I have been told that you are a most terrific snob, not in the sense of one who likes dissolute peers and the forgotten offspring of ruling houses (which is the sort of snob I, am), but in the sense of one who reveres descendants of Thrings, Littletons, Arnolds and other survivals of the educational Junkers of the nineteenth century. This may have accounted for your antipathy to boys like myself who were not quite gentlemen, but who found themselves in the school.

If this is so, it is a faint excuse for your abomin- able behaviour, but it is no explanation of your parade of asceticism which had the happy effect on me of inculcating a revolt in favour of Oscar Wilde and the most sensual poems of the Nineties I could lay. my hands on. If you had been an atheist you would have been bearable; but the fact that you took your mens sana in corpore sano Into chapel with you put me off religion for all Illy later school years. Your lack of any humour goes without saying.

Trying to think that Our Lord is God—that is to 84Y, being a Christian—is neither reasonable nor convenient. But for me it is essential. Because this is so, I often find myself saying the Lord's Prayer.

But there is one part of it I can never say whole- heartedly : 'as we forgive them that trespass against us.' I always remember you then; pos- sibly it is this prayer which keeps you daily so present in my mind. After this letter I may be able to say it with more sincerity.

I am, Yours truly,