Harry Mount

Hard times | 4 September 2014

Why are the greatest schools in literature so steeped in Gothic severity? By <em>Harry Mount</em>

Hard times | 4 September 2014
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When the late, great Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans conspired to create St Trinian’s and Nigel Molesworth, the archetypal English prep school boy, they wanted to evoke an air of -austere, post-war gloom.

Molesworth’s school, St Custard’s, was, in his own words, ‘built by a madman in 1836’. For both St Custard’s and St Trinian’s, Searle plumped for a grim, early Gothic Revival style, all inky, glowering crockets and pinnacles. His choice of Gothic was inspired by his wartime service when he was stationed in Kirkcudbright in 1940. There he met two schoolgirls, evacuated from a school called St Trinnean’s, Edinburgh, an OTT exercise in high Scottish Gothic. ‘I prefer Renaissance architecture, but the gloom of Gothic suited my work better,’ said Searle, ‘I misspelt it by accident — St Trinnean was an ancient saint — and it stuck.’

Austere gloom was certainly still the prevailing mood in my school days in the 1970s and 1980s. Westminster School may have been expensive — although a lot less expensive in real terms than it is today, at £10,830 a term for boarders. But it also retained an echo of St Custard’s — not just in the crockets and pinnacles of neighbouring Westminster Abbey, but also in a threadbare echo of that post-war austerity. Living standards were appropriately monastic in the shadow of the Abbey. We stuck milk bottles out on the ledge of our day room to keep them cool. What would have been the point of a fridge? Thirteen-year-old boys don’t need fancy, new-tangled devices to satisfy their plain, brutish tastes.

Lunch wasn’t much better. We lived off buttered toast to compensate for the sub-optimal school food. At one particularly uninspiring meal, a friend of mine complained to the school chef that his roast lamb was sweating. ‘You’d sweat if you were put in an oven for three hours,’ barked the chef.

Yes, the surroundings were impossibly grand — not in terms of opulence, but when it came to history. That day room was in one of the first Palladian buildings in the country, designed by Lord Burlington in the early 18th century. The gym was in a medieval corner of the abbey cloister.

But those surroundings were agreeably run down. The vaulting horse in the gym was almost as ancient as the cloister. The school’s second-hand bookshop — which I ran out of a broom cupboard by the bogs — was full of dog-eared novels encrusted with generations of unfunny schoolboy graffiti.

The austere days of the great British public school are gone now. Russian oligarchs and American hedge-funders want today’s Nigel Molesworths to have their own centrally heated studies and artificially cooled milk. That’s one of the reasons private education has moved beyond the reach of the children of middle-class professionals. But, also, something more than affordable school fees has been lost along the way.

I’m not arguing for a return to sepia-tinted schooldays, where you were grateful to be beaten within an inch of your life by frustrated, unhappy men in mortarboards and gowns. And I can’t claim that Westminster made me more resilient, like the Marlborough-educated subject of one second world war anecdote. This man, like Ronald Searle, was imprisoned by the Japanese during the war. When he turned up at the gruesome jail, he was greeted by an old schoolfriend.

‘What’s it like here?’ said the worried new arrival.

‘Oh, not too bad. Much better than Marlborough, anyway.’

But that combination of a brilliant education in beautiful surroundings and material discomfort did produce a useful lesson in life’s priorities — that medieval buildings and Ancient Greek verbs are more important than Louis Vuitton pencil cases and Versace underpants. And, these days, I would still prefer to stay in a windowless dive in a pension by Termini Railway Station in Rome than in the Hotel Schloss Uberluxy on some remote, sun-blasted, cultureless beach.

It’s not that I actively prefer discomfort in some wacko hairshirt way, more that I don’t mind it that much. And that’s the best lesson of childhood deprivation in exalted, cultured surroundings: you like looking at palaces; you don’t expect to live in one — even if you find that that’s precisely where some of your more exalted school friends end up living.

The funny thing is that public schools in literature remain unremittingly bleak today, as if the comfort revolution had never taken place. Harry Potter’s Hogwarts might just as well be St Trinian’s or St Custard’s, for all its Gothic chill. In fact, a rival school called Hogwarts does actually appear in the 1954 Molesworth volume, How to be Topp. St Custard’s is regularly beaten at football by Hogwarts and their other deadly rivals, Porridge Court. And, in his wise words on Latin lessons, Molesworth writes,

Sometimes they think they will trick you into liking lat. by having a latin pla. Latin plas are like this:

THE HOGWARTS

by

MARCUS PLAUTUS MOLESWORTHUS

Hogwarts could hardly be gloomier, with its bristling thickets of crenellated towers, the Black Lake and the Forbidden Forest. How richly Gothic to have a school owlery, where pupils keep their own owls.

Today, no real public school comes close to matching the medieval gloom of Hogwarts. J.K. Rowling, born in 1965, must have been feeding off the boarding school literature of her childhood — from St Custard’s to Billy Bunter’s Greyfriars School, from Jennings’s Linbury Court to Winker Watson’s Greytowers Boarding School.

It is from the austerity and bleakness of these places — sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not — that the humour and the mischief of those school stories was born. Somehow I think today’s ultra-comfortable public schools won’t produce the same literary gold dust. As the great Nigel Molesworth is prone to say, ‘It is all an uter chiz.’

Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Viking).