As far as I know, there’s no word in the English language for feeling both terrified and smug at the same time. That’s how I felt when I gave a recent talk to my old school, Westminster, from the pulpit in Westminster Abbey. The talk was about how guilty I felt at taking the Westminster Abbey for granted when I was a boy there in the 1980s — the abbey being the school chapel. I worked out that I’d been to the abbey 400 times when I was at school. Well, to be precise, that’s 400 minus the number of times I bunked abbey — which I began to do regularly in the sixth form.
How could I have chosen not to go to one of the world’s greatest churches? I’m now obsessed with old buildings and monuments. But in my four years at the school I didn’t take in a single monument, even though my house, Dryden’s, sat in Poets’ Corner, flanked by memorials to Shakespeare, Handel, Keats and Shelley.
Nor had I noticed the school’s exceptional buildings: my day room in the early-Palladian dormitory, built by Lord Burlington in 1722; or the Norman passage that led to the school gym, where I broke my arm when I fell off a vaulting horse. Was I that short on curiosity? That self-obsessed? The funny thing, though, was that, for all the lack of curiosity, everything about the school was familiar when I went back. I may not have noticed the buildings or the monuments when I was there, but even a self-obsessed adolescent brain absorbs something of its surroundings.
Graham Greene said all the formative feelings of his life hit him before he was 21, and his novels drew only on that finite stock of feeling.