The Nightmare Of Juventus

Everyone will surely be well aware that the film “If …”, in which bullied schoolboys gun down the prefects, masters, stuffed-shirt Governors, rich parents and so forth at a public-school Speech Day, was a fantasy sequence. In the Britain of 1968 not even gangsters, let alone alienated teenagers, had access to automatic weapons. But the audience will at least know what a Speech Day was.

My own school also maintained Combined Cadet Forces, with enough square-bashing to delight the heart of an 18th-century king, not only on Speech Day but also on all Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Some weekends under canvas, I think. The masters held whatever rank they had achieved during the war and the prefects doubled as corporals and sergeants; on certain days of the week, therefore, you would be taught your languages or math by people in military uniform.

Of course, this sort of thing was only considered absurd or offensive when the Communists did it. Schoolchildren under Mao Zedong wickedly marched with wooden guns, whereas ours were the real thing, even though I am not sure about the ammunition. The whole thing was designed to train the boys of a particular class to be officers in the next war. Because in twentieth-century Britain, “mudbloods” did not rise from the ranks, neither in the Army nor in industry and finance. You were born to command, or not.

You think that is weird? My own school also had an annual public exercise in swimming strokes and in breaking the grasp of a drowning person, performed in pairs by the whole school whether they could in fact swim or not. This might have been part of Speech Day or else a separate department of the petting zoo, I cannot now remember.

In itself the idea of an annual school concert is far from weird. Probably most scholastic institutions do it, as well as a school play. People brought up under a different system might find two particular aspects more bizarre. One, that it was both universal and not in the least voluntary. Ability to sing was not remotely a requirement, and there was no possible excuse other than having been run over by a train the previous day. The boys were not even taught to sing as a choir; that was simply not how this school’s mind worked. You were put on a stage and ordered to sing, end of story. I do not remember what they did about the solo parts; that did not concern me.

The second bizarre aspect was the choice of material. It was always Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Why Elgar? Other than his being a native of a country that had not distinguished itself in music for centuries, I have no idea. The roots of the school were Church of England, the work had been banned by the local Anglican bishop a generation previously, so the choice could have had nothing to do with Cardinal Newman. (Unless, perhaps, the school in general was modelled on the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.) Why the journey of an old man from death to judgment? I have even less idea. We were not even told that this is what it was; for all we knew at the time, Gerontius was just the guy’s name. Telling us that it was Latin for “old man”, or why we were singing about his post-mortem experiences, was equally well not how the school’s mind worked.

Performing unpleasant and utterly meaningless tasks is a vital part of the life of the soldier, so my only hypothesis is that having to sing (for some values of the word “sing”) Elgar’s oratorio was deeply connected with the Prussian strutting of the masters and prefects pretending to defend the Brutish Empire.

Posted on February 11, 2011 at 19:02 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: PARENTAL STATUS TECHNOLOGY, Hugo Grinebiter's Schooldays

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