"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
My chief friend at school was George Munro from New York. In a disused tool-shed in the grounds he and I held meetings of a secret society. It was a very exclusive society. At first he and I were the only members, but later two other boys named Hamilton and Gilmour were elected. The aim of our society was to promote among ourselves the intensive study of a periodical called Boxiana, which gave the life-history of great heroes of the ring, and their fights in chronological order. Of the dates of decisive battles in English history we might be ignorant, but we could have told you offhand the day, place and hour when Bob FitzSimmons met the Coffee Cooler. When Kid McCoy won the light-weight championship of the world at Madison Gardens, New York City, George and I sent him a joint letter of congratulation, and in reply received his photograph. One week it would be hanging over George’s bed, the next over mine.
We even shared our admiration for the same lady, Lil Hawthorne, Principal Boy in the Pantomime at the Empire Theatre. Here she sang a song entitled, ‘Take it Home and give it to the Baby,” and threw dolls into the audience at the end of each verse. At out first visit we missed getting a doll and therefore saved our money until we had enough to book two first-row stalls at a Saturday matinee. In attending the matinee we committed the heinous crime of absenting ourselves from an inter-school “rugger” match, but fortunately our absence was not detected. To Lil Hawthorne, we had written a joint letter, telling her of our admiration and the Principal Boy, before beginning her song, came to the footlights, nodded, smiled, and threw to each of us a doll. On leaving the theatre we realised it was impossible to take these dolls back to Merchiston, Neither George nor I had any wish to die an early death, and in the street we saw two little girls to whom we gave our trophies.
There is a phonograph recording of Lil Hawthorne here, and a biography which includes a picture of her dolls here. If these were of the kind that she was handing out at The Empire, they are indeed “trophies” but, all that said, I think Munro and Sutherland made the right call by giving them away. Had they taken the dolls back to school with them, they would have drawn attention to their absence and would have been caught. Following punishment, it is doubtful whether their peers would have let them forget it…ever!
Some contemporary writers seem to have been unfortunate in their school. If a man, his old school resembles an unlicensed borstal; if a woman, an Academy of Lesbians. Even if it puts me out of fashion I am bound to record that the moral tone at Merchiston was clean, and many of us now in middle life recall the resolutions of the old school song, once sung with conviction:
Ready, aye ready! This shall be our song;
Ready to be gentle, ready to be strong;
Ready to uphold the right and redress the wrong.
No school is perfect, but it seems ludicrous for anyone to blame his school for subsequent failures in life. If we did not obtain the best out school could offer, the fault was in ourselves. Yet the public schools are in danger. In the first place, only the wealthy classes can afford a public school education for their children. Every child in Britain is entitled to a free education from the State schools. Any parent in London may select out of hundreds of schools under the London County Council one at which his children shall receive free education. Many parents in good circumstances take advantage of this privilege. They are entitled to do so. As tax-payers they have already paid for the education of their children. Other parents, in similar circumstances, wish their children to have the advantages of a public school. If they relieve the State of the expense of educating their children, would it not be fair for the State to grant to the public school the equivalent cost of education at a State school? This would reduce school fees and involve neither charity nor subsidy. All schools receiving this grant would be inspected by the State, and many so-called preparatory schools would be closed or reformed to the benefit of children and parents.
Another danger to the public schools is the extraordinary high standard of education attained by many children in our elementary schools. It is not possible to exaggerate this fact. Only a year ago I obtained the paper on arithmetic set for London children aged twelve years, who were competing for scholarships. I could not answer one of the four questions. That night, dining at one of the Inns of Court I showed the paper to two K.C.s and a junior barrister. None could answer the questions. Every year the standard is rising, and if teachers complain, the examiners have a valid answer – the competition for these scholarships is so great that they have got to raise the standard in order to select the best.
For many public schoolboys life may become a tragedy, but to face that fierce competition more is needed than the old school tie and pleasant manners.
from A Time to Keep