Copyright. Hugh Harris 1993
The other News From England essays. April 4th.,1993.
(No person represented in this document is intended to portray any person living or dead. All names are fictitious.)
Not infrequently, I read both the obituaries and the readers' letters in newspapers.
Not so long ago, I found a letter from a lady I know who related how a friend of hers (who had appeared as an obituary the previous week), when they were both young, had frequently challenged her to a game of tennis, and using an old racket with a few holes in it, despite being offered a decent one, always managed by some means to beat her. Not surprising, I'd say, since he knew his racket so well that he could predict the course the ball would take when he hit it whilst she was unable to predict the course until a few microseconds later. Quite a good dodge, I'd call it, particularly if one has the English obsession with winning.
About a week ago, there was an obituary about a peculiarly English character whom I shall call Desmond. Desmond was born around 1910, and although it was not stated where he went to school, one must assume from his behaviour that he went to what the English call a 'public school'. I will tell you about these later, but for the moment I am interested in Desmond's army career He had decided he wanted to be in the military as soon as he left school, I believe, and because he was what the English call a 'gentleman' he seems to have had a free choice of what regiment he might join, and also the option of changing from one regiment to another, or possibly departing from the army altogether.
His adventures during World War Two were the bit that first caught my imagination. If they are true, they had a certain something that give this man the style of a very English eccentric.
At the front, Desmond wore a bowler hat and carried an umbrella. He walked about as though there were no bullets. It is said that a padre was dodging from one trench to another looking after the wounded when the enemy opened fire.
"Don't worry," said Desmond, "I've got an umbrella."
He was always dressed immaculately, except on one occasion, when the back of his trousers was blasted away, but he still behaved in exactly the same manner, except of course he looked like a scarecrow.
They were battling to gain entry into Germany over the bridge at Arnheim. The Germans suggested they might like to surrender as they were so outnumbered, and because of their failure to do so Desmond's umbrella became a symbol of British defiance.
He was eventually wounded, and was hospitalised in a hospital run by the Germans, but escaped with some others. During this time, two of them were cycling along a road on the German side of the border when a German staff car rounded a bend and ran off the road. Far from hiding, Desmond and his companion helped the Germans get their vehicle back onto the road! When asked later why, he said "Oh well, you know, it seemed wise. They were very excited.
His adventures continued in a similar manner throughout the war, through being sheltered by Dutch resistance workers, pretending to be house-painters in a house where two German officers were billeted, riding about the countryside on bikes, and so on. It is said that on one occasion, Desmond arrived at a house at the same time as two German officers, and allowed them to stand back to let him go in first!
Well, fantasies they may be (and maybe not), and presumably one would find similar stories about soldiers of other nationalities in obituaries. Never having done any military service, I find it difficult to imagine how one could walk walk amongst the enemy without getting shot. Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps Desmond was so eccentric that nobody wanted to shoot him. There is a certain magic about eccentricity.
Now let me tell you about 'public schools', for they might give you some idea of how someone like Desmond comes about.
The British public school is not public at all. It is the exact opposite, and believes itself to be about privilege. You pay to have your son (and in more recent years daughter) taught that they are destined to be in control of the world. This, by and large, is done with a disregard of the child's general intelligence or other qualities, although there is always as far as I know an 'examination' to assess the child's abilities. One gets the general impression, however, that a child is largely examined as to the wealth and social acceptability of it's parents.
People from the "ordinary" walks of life - the children of engineers, university lecturers, bus-drivers, designers, milkmen, artists, musicians, cleaners, salespeople, teachers, and indeed everybody else who is neither rich nor speaks with the right accent are excluded.
There are exceptions to this though. Some of the public schools offer scholarships to a token number of 'working class' children - quite how the parents manage to enter their children for selection I don't know, when I consider how excluded the parents would be from that social circle.
My own impression of public schools (I'll tell you on another occasion the type of school I went to), is that of a place were corporal punishment, homosexuality, gross and pointless competitiveness, brutality and Latin go hand in hand.
The reason for the Latin, I believe, is obscure and Historic.The Romans brought Latin,and since the Romans were in control for a while an exclusive group was formed who could speak (?) and write Latin. The Romans eventually departed, but those camp followers they left behind continued to use Latin because they could then pretend to be in some way superior, and thereby maintain control. So they've been doing it ever since. Our lawyers rely on Latin to maintain exclusivity over their profession, as do our doctors and some others. Not a few modern day crooks are good at latin, and of course some churches use it extensively. These Latin scholars would, of course, tell you that there is something else to it, and quote various Latin writings to prove it. The fact that you wouldn't have the vaguest idea what they were talking about without being able to understand Latin yourself would be beyond their understanding.
They do learn other things at public schools, however. They learn how to speak with a certain accent, and they are taught, to varying degrees, most of the normal subjects that are taught in other schools in this country. And they are taught to grin and bear it, which may explain Desmond (the British stiff upper lip), although some fail as in all things.
The teachers in the State (the genuinely public) schools, by and large, will have the same ability as the teachers In public schools, but will not have establishment accents, and will not necessarily have establishment attitudes. Anyway, they won't have establishment opportunities, and neither will any of their pupils except by a stroke of luck (if you can call it that).
As to the actual level of education, it is always debatable, since the prior question to that must be exactly what is school is for. I think it must be the case that the original purpose for a school was to teach a person how to make a living or how to get into a monastery/convent (lots of Latin) and thereby get fed and clothed by the populace.
A modern-day school, therefore, ought to teach people something that might be useful in modern times, but the great majority (state schools less than public) teach very little that could be perceived as being of this nature. The argument for what they do teach (largely how to pass exams. where a child has beet declared bright, and woodwork where the child is declared dense) is that it teaches you discipline. I suppose that has some valdity, but one would also learn discipline whilst learning something useful.
In the sixties I taught technical subjects in state schools. My main line was woodwork. To be any good at it requires a high level of understanding of the nature of the world. The difficulty of this is that those who decide which child goes to which classes (unfortunately it is not the child who decides this, though that might be better), has no idea (because of their own education) what technical subjects are about. They, after all, in their day, were declared to be bright by those who knew their Latin. The fact that modern society happened as it did largely because of technology is of no significance to a Latin scholar, since to suggest that it is important would be in their eyes to suggest that they themselves are less important than they thought. In a society whose whole social structure is so wobbly and insecure this would be impossible for them to accept.
So, in a nutshell, the public schools (who, incidentally, have their own class system within) are to teach people to not be able to do anything but to presume to be in control even if they don't know what decisions to make, and to expect others to do everything practical for them, whilst the state schools are to teach people to do practical things regardless of their ability, or to pass exams., in order to be minions to the public school people. What is surprising is that the British do so well economically and politically in the world.
There are some other equally disastrous types of education in England, but these are the main ones.
If Desmond was mad, I really feel he ought to be forgiven. He was a product of British education, after all. You couldn't have a much more difficult start in life.