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July 25, 2007

School Story: Herbert Hayens' Play Up, Buffs!

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Play Up, Buffs!
by Herbert Hayens
Pp. 314. Collins, 1925

When Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown's Schooldays in 1857 he created a genre - the school story - which grew to such an extent, at least in England and a few of its colonies, that by 1939 George Orwell was complaining in his essay "Boys' Weeklies" that such stories had become the normal, sometimes the only, reading even for the lower strata of society. They created a young, male reading public which had scarcely existed before and which barely exists now.

The most similar achievement, I believe, is to be found in Owen Wister's 1902 novel, The Virginian, which created the Western. They are similar in so far as the originals were highly moral - and morally complex - tales whereas what came later was at a lower level. But, of course, there are important differences. The Western became primarily a cinematic conception, its imagery drawing partly on the paintings of Wister's Harvard contemporary, Frederic Remington, but the school story remained almost entirely a thing of the printed page.

Among Orwell's complaints were that the stories were conservative and snobbish - though in a pre-1914 kind of way without a hint of Fascism. They encouraged working class boys to fantasise about a form of education which they would never themselves experience. They had also become formulaic and morally shallow: heroes obey the moral code and triumph, villains don't . . . and don't. All of which is entirely different from the original which is a vision of a new kind of spirituality which embraces Christian Socialism. In Hughes' sport has its part - at least the new organised, "manly", pious forms of sport do - but this part is primarily a pedagogic device in which the individual learns to become part of the whole. Victory is not important: modern readers are often surprised that "Tom's last match" is a defeat and nobody seems to mind. What's all that about?

Typically, perhaps, Orwell fails or refuses to make the obvious distinctions within the generic school story. He mainly quotes the Gem and Magnet magazines whose school stories were comical, essentially sit-com. If there is a single fictional schoolboy whose name is still resonant in popular culture it is surely Billy Bunter, Frank Richards' "fat owl of the Remove". He is not virtuous, but he is funny; he would have appalled The Doctor. The sit-com version is full of fops, caricature villains and cartoon products of empire. It is descended more from P. G.Wodehouse's Mike and Psmith (originally, The Lost Lambs) than from Tom Hughes. It was much more popular than the straight version, which was to be found in exclusive magazines like Captain.

And in hardback form as well, like this one from a steady producer of school stories and imperial yarns, Herbert Hayens. It has sat on my shelves for decades unread, alongside the same author's Play Up, Stags! It was probably bought for a very small sum in a second-hand bookshop locally, because it was presented as a second prize for attendance at a Sunday School in Bedworth to one Ronald Grimley in 1933, though I note that in these days of perfect electronic markets it is now worth 25. I am prepared to go with Orwell in betting that young Ron never saw the inside of a public school himself.

As with Tom Brown this story starts with a boy, Maurice Payton, back in his village, about to go "up" to public school in January. The village is clearly located in Merrie England. It has a wise and jolly squire called Sir John Badley and a butcher's boy called Carrots. Word goes round that "the pond's bearing" and everyone skates. Payton is knocked over by a cocky youth called Lorimer. Turns out that he is off to the same school - Cheverill - and the two become chums, thus maintaining the tradition that best-chum relationships start with acts of violence.

Once at school the plot consists of the relationships between the senior sixth form boys as seen by their juniors. There is Westover, the noble Captain, Glynn, the handsome star of sports field and exam room, Broadhurst, the eccentric and Rogers, the outsider.

And then there is Canham, who is a sort of Iago figure: he is bitterly jealous of the talented Glynn and the feud (as in Shakespeare's histories or in Dallas) goes back to their fathers. Canham pretends to be a good chum, but insinuates rumours intended to deprecate the reputation of his secret enemy. In particular, when Westover has to resign as cricket captain after a car accident and appoints Glynn in his place Canham suggests that Glynn has said that he has been chosen in order to scupper his chances of a scholarship for which they are the main rivals. This potentially derogates both heroes - that the noble Captain would act in such a way or that his successor would suggest that he had are equally dishonourable and unthinkable. Payton and his chums remain loyal to Glynn and defend his reputation with their fists. In the end the outsider, Rogers, showing that outsiders can be useful chaps, reveals Canham's plot and all reputations are saved (except for that of the villain, of course).

We follow the boys through a variety of competitions: cross-country, athletics, rugby and cricket, but also academic work. Mens sana is taken very seriously and we are asked to admire Glynn for turning down a Mediterranean cruise in order to study for a scholarship under a private tutor - a scholarship which he and his chief rival then withdraw from as a matter of honour. In these competitions the boys outside the sixth form are almost exactly like the mob in Shakespeare's Roman plays: they are passionate and fickle in their choice of heroes, lionising you one moment, despising you soon after. Glynn learns the lesson that it is integrity which matters, not popularity: Can you live with yourself? And not What do other people think?

Since I went to a school with more or less the same institutional structure as this it is interesting to compare the culture portrayed in the story with the reality of thirty something years later. Both are descended from the same model, which is Tom Hughes' idealised portrait of Rugby School. There was even a direct influence insofar as books like this actually influenced our expectations of boarding school. But I wouldn't want to overdo this argument because by the 1950s we had many other sources of ideas. My own over-riding desire to go away to school had as its main stimulus the tales of house matches and midnight feasts which filtered down from a friend's elder brother.

I wish I'd read this before I wrote my book on amateurism. It wouldn't have changed my ideas, but it would have provided some good quotations. One of the "Sixth", Broadhurst, takes the amateur idea seriously (p. 51):

"It's a pity they make such a fuss about it," remarked Broadhurst quietly.

"Oh, come, old chap, naturally they want us to win; don't you?"

"Well, on the whole," replied Broadhurst, with a smile, "I'd prefer that you knocked Barry and his merry men. All this sports rivalry is getting too serious, becoming a regular business instead of a pleasant game. We'll soon be as bad as the Americans."

"Wish we were half as good," Pierce chipped in: "they're sweeping the board everywhere, breaking records like eggs."

"That's just it - breaking records! I don't blame the pros; it's their livelihood and they have to make good the same as a prize-fighter or they won't draw the crowd. But what gets me is that we're egging on our amateurs to do just the same. It's getting to be a pure business stunt and very soon we'll have no sport left."

But his attitude is considered posturing and unhelpful by others, particularly the younger boys. For what it's worth, I think their attitudes are more typical: amateurism, especially in the form of the England cricket captains of this period like Lionel Tennyson and Douglas Jardine tended to see the winning imperative as a moral crusade to show their own superiority over lesser types. As it happens, in this story, it is Broadhurst who tends to pick up the glittering prizes when cajoled into action on behalf of the greater good. He even wins the scholarship when the two leading contenders withdraw.

Orwell was undoubtedly right to suggest that books like this perpetrated a kind of conservatism which was cheerful, shallow and rather old-fashioned. The link between playing field and empire made poetic by Sir Henry Newbolt is unquestioned and Hayens has no time for those who think our national capacities are diminished (p. 193):
It is a thousand pities that the Dismal Jerrys who write screeds of drivelling piffle about the failure of our public schools and the appalling degeneracy of young England, could not have spent an hour in the Sixth Form room at Cheverill an evening or two after the beginning of Term. They would have seen a gathering of bronzed healthy young men, physically fit to go anywhere and do anything, sprung from the stock that produced Drake and Nelson, Wellington and Nicholson in our fighting services; wise and gifted rulers like the Lawrences; intrepid explorers like Frobisher; single-hearted enthusiasts, like Livingstone, who carried the flaming torch of religion into the dark places of the earth.
Although the leading characters tend to use the phrase "working like a nigger", they are not otherwise racist as they have no opportunity to be so. Nor are they snobbish toward their ordinary middle-class neighbours: they meet the local town club and grammar school on the playing field in conditions of mutual respect and, surprisingly, these seem to be their biggest games rather than those against major public schools. But the ruffians and cads of the lower class are treated as enemies; Glynn distinguishes himself protecting younger boys from them. And "Bolshie" is the ultimate insult: when Canham shows his true nature and kills a younger boy's pet mouse in a fit of temper he acquires the nickname "Bolshie".

One minor difference between their sporting culture and ours is that they take cross-country seriously whereas we thought it was for skinny kids and idiots. In fact I was the recipient of my share of a mass beating when our house team, keen sportsmen all, skipped over the finishing line holding hands in joint last place. It was some years before I could bring myself to jog without feeling I was letting the side down.

And, more importantly, they take academic work seriously. Chaps are as intent on winning scholarships as on winning the Old Boys game. And this sort of attitude is considered acceptable: the mob of the Lower Fourth discuss which of two Sixth Form men is the finer scholar and deserves to win a scholarship! Wouldn't have done in my day; academic work was not part of our shared discourse and if you had talents or ambitions in that direction they were a private matter, like one's parents' standard of living. Indeed, the whole concern with reputation and relationships which dominates life at the fictional Cheverill would have seemed all rather girly to us. (I feel a terrible doctoral thesis coming on: "From Tom Brown to James Bond: the desensitisation of English masculinities". Actually, it was a housemaster who lent me my first copy of Casino Royale.)

Which brings me to the biggest difference of all which is, of course, sex. It never featured at all in school stories in the classic period and only began to appear in the sort of novels which killed off the school story like David Benedictus's The Fourth of June in 1964. Whereas in reality it was everywhere and, as a complete innocent from a small town, I had to learn a whole new vocabulary in which "wank" was just as important a word as "prep". Here I can only find one tiny hint, in a conversation about Canham's feelings for Glynn (p. 20):

" . . . . He doesn't want anyone butting in between himself and Glynn. Wants to keep him to himself."

"Fond of him as all that?" asked Lorimer with a laugh.

And I may be reading too much into this.

As a genre the school story rose very quickly to a high commercial peak, lasted about a century and then declined even more rapidly than it had risen. A revival is not possible. Public schools still exist, of course, but they have aims and objectives, business plans and child-centred policies. And most of them have girls. But it is good to dip back into the old world occasionally. As so often, George Orwell proves adept at advertising that which he disapproves:

The year is 1910 - or 1940, but it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars, a rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh, tailor-made clothes, sitting down to tea in your study on the Remove passage after an exciting game of football which was won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cosy fire in the study and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating, but the grim grey battleships of the British fleet are steaming up the channel . . .

[from George Orwell, Essays, Penguin 1994, pp. 89-90]

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001). His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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