October 15, 2006

To Serve Them All My Days

by R. E. Delderfield

As Scott was welcoming us to the Inn at Weston last weekend, he pointed to a well-stocked bookcase in the library. "Take whatever you like," he urged us. "If you don't finish it, take it along with you and mail it back." A good bookshelf is important to a country inn. And so, under the influence of Australian jet lag, I found myself rereading this charming tribute to the Public School and its schoolmasters.

I had thought this an old classic, like Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857 ), though I had mentally shelved it next to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962). But though To Serve Them All My Days seems closer in spirit to Tom Brown than to the Brodie set, its copyright date is 1972. That's strangely disturbing.

Writing in the current New Yorker about a new revival of A Chorus Line (1975), John Lahr observes that the shadow of Vietnam is not far offstage.

Seeping into its cutthroat dance-off was not just a new look but a new sound—the post-Vietnam sound of retreat. Cassie’s spiritual fatigue reflected the culture’s nostalgia for a simpler, happier life, one undamaged by the nation’s imperialism, one that would replace the destiny of me with the destiny of we. A Chorus Line’s sense of abdication spoke subliminally to its time; it is also what makes the musical so pertinent to the present, disillusioned generation.

If Vietnam casts any shadow over Bamfylde School, it is in the concluding chapter and its catalog of Old Boys who are lost in the Second World War, just as the headmaster at the center of the book was nearly lost on the First. To the end, the book's hero remains deeply convinced that the important things about a school are sympathy and sports, and that the really vital task is to make sure that the young men grow up willing to pitch in and to clean up after others. It's a world of sentimental domesticity, and the boy who goes off to fight Franco is dispatched as simply doing his bit, a bit too soon.

But it's a fine world nonetheless, a pleasant read for a crisp autum morning