Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School captures the hilarity and pathos of an eccentric headmaster and the unusual establishment he founded in Kensington in the Thirties. A.N.Wilson introduces us to his funny, peculiar world
There are two sorts of school stories. Much the most popular, of course, are those that observe the drama of school life through the prism of the pupils’ imagination. Malory Towers, the Chalet School adventures, Jennings and Darbishire, Harry Potter, Billy Bunter all belong to this addictive genre. My father, who was born in 1902, used to say that the essential thing to realise about such books is that they are really about class; that in his boyhood, it was not the privately educated who were devotees of Frank Richards’s chronicles of Greyfriars, but those who attended ‘government schools’ and liked imagining themselves wearing an Eton collar and being given six of the best in the cloisters.
I am not entirely convinced by this analysis, but I shall return to it. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that there is another type of school story, no less gripping, especially to those of us who have ourselves entered, however briefly, into the strange world of teaching, especially teaching in a private school. These are the stories in which the principal characters are not the children, but the teachers themselves. I am thinking of such masterpieces as Ivy Compton-
Burnett’s Pastors and Masters, or More Women than Men; Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall or, what is in some ways the best of such books, G. F. Bradby’s The Lanchester Tradition, a classic comedy about the liberalising headmaster of Rugby and the torment he caused to his conservative-minded staff.
One of the things brought out by such masterpieces is that almost all those who become schoolteachers, especially in a school for seven- to 13-year-olds, have elected to be seen through the eyes of those who may well idolise or hate them, but will also (especially in England) refuse to take them entirely seriously.