THE HUMBUG OF AIR.
By P. G. WODEHOUSE.
The Daily Mail, October 8, 1913
Four men sat talking in a club, and the conversation turned to the subject of private schools.
“I went to a private school at Beckenham,” said one. He was a magnificent specimen. Beneath the folds of his “gent’s heather-mixture lounge suiting” the muscles swelled like the waves in the wreck-scene of a melodrama.
“I went to a place in Bath,” said the second. He was a superbly healthy being. A glance at him was enough to assure one that if he got annoyed with an ox he would think nothing of felling it with a blow.
“I was at a school in Bedford,” said the athlete of Greek proportions who occupied the third chair.
And then the fourth man spoke. He had been prevented till now by a nasty hacking cough which seemed to be chronic. He was a lantern-jawed, pasty-faced, debilitated, adynamic shrimp.
“I went to a place on the Kent coast,” he said.
There was a pause, punctuated by the coughing of the last speaker.
Then the fragile, emaciated, rickety man added: “My people insisted on it. The air there is so wonderful.”
England clings to her illusions, and England still holds the view that small boys who are not prepared for the public schools in establishments situated on the south-east coast are taking big chances of fading away and perishing miserably at the age of fourteen or at least ruining their health beyond recovery.
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I have nothing to say against the air of the south-east coast. I have examined samples from time to time, and it seems to me to be perfectly good air. My point is that the attitude of the British father would suggest that it is the only air that can be called air and that all other brands are a sort of noxious miasma, subjected to which little Willie cannot but wilt like a poisoned puppy and in due course give up the struggle and expire. To hear the British father talk, one would imagine that all England outside a certain radius was a sort of lethal chamber.
It is the man’s inconsistency which maddens me. For this same air fiend, when his son has arrived at the age for a public school, will send him to Eton, on a river; Cheltenham, in an inland valley; Winchester, a low-lying town; Westminster, near the House of Commons; or to Repton, Bedford, Tonbridge, St. Paul’s, Dulwich, or some other school miles outside the south-east-coast radius. And what are the statistics? Is Eton a morgue? Do Cheltonians die off like flies?
It may be argued that the son stores up such a quantity of health at his south-east-coast school that by the time he starts his career as an Etonian he has a sufficient stock to enable him just to get through all right. Then he dashes down to Bexhill and takes in some more. But the probability is that he goes to Oxford or Cambridge, where the air, from a father’s point of view, is simply poison. And still he does not break up. He develops a chest like a barrel and rows races. Later he comes to London. By this time he must surely have used up that cargo of Bexhill air which enabled him to stagger through Eton. Yet he survives. He goes on surviving. Presently he marries. Time goes on. His son reaches the preparatory school age. There is a family discussion. The stillness of some London square is rent by a cry of horror and indignation.
It is our hero protesting against the suggestion that the boy’s life shall be put in jeopardy by education at a school that is not on the south-east coast.
Again, it may be argued that it is only at a certain age that air is so vitally important. If we grant that, how do we account for the robust health of the thousands who have not been to preparatory schools on the south-east coast? To what miracle are we to attribute the fact that so many men brought up from childhood in London and the suburbs have muscles like teak and the constitutions of mustangs?
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No, it is humbug, this worship of south-east-coast air. I myself spent two years of my life at a school on the Kent coast, in a spot where all that was not chalk was red-brick villas. Like most small boys, I was susceptible to my surroundings, and I can recall the depression of the place still. I could not analyse this depression at the time, but I see now that it was the result of having nothing pleasant to look at, of being so far from the football and cricket ground that it was an event to go there, and of that peculiar desolation which is a feature of the “healthy air” radius. There was no reason on earth, except the air superstition, why there should have been a school where that school was. With the same financial outlay the proprietor could have rented a country house inland in the midst of meadows. In that case, instead of being cooped up in the house except when we went for formal walks through groves of red-brick villas, we might have spent our time in the open without going off the school premises. A school day is punctuated by intervals too short for any organised excursion into the open air, but long enough to make all the difference to a small boy who has a garden or a field into which he can dash for a few minutes when he is at liberty.
Parents, in the endeavour to get little Willie’s blood circulating briskly, overlook the fact that he is of an age at which the imagination demands food almost as much as the body. Private schools in seaside towns ought to be forbidden by law. A little grass and a few trees are tremendous things to a small boy. They keep his imagination alive. He cannot weave dreams about an esplanade.
I have watched the little victims of the air superstition. I have observed them in their moments of leisure. I have seen them walking two and two along the asphalt front, shepherded by a dejected assistant-master who tells them not to shuffle their feet. Once glance at them has told me that to get to their cricket ground they have to go up Sea View-terrace, turn down Montmorency-crescent, take the first road to the left after you pass the stonemason’s, continue along by the boarding-houses, skirt the Grand Hotel and the bit of waste land where the corporation are going to build the villas when they have time, and then ask the keeper of the recreation ground for the key to their private mud patch.
What a life!
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As I write these words I seem to see the scorching retorts which will jump out at me from the pages of tomorrow’s paper. A. will state that it would be as well another time if Mr. Wodehouse would make sure of his facts before making wild statements in print, and that his school at Eastbourne has nine acres of private ground attached to it. B. will call attention to his superb playing fields at Broadstairs. C. will point out that the garden and cricket field attached to his school at Westgate are so extensive that it is frequently necessary to send out search parties to retrieve boys who have got lost there. I am quite aware that many of the south-east-coast schools do possess these advantages. But what I maintain is that these are not the majority. They are the oldest schools, which came early and avoided the rush. They cannot accommodate all the sons of all the air fiends, most of whom have to put up with the type of school which I have sketched above, whose only recommendation is that it is situated in a town with a reputation for bracing air. Such schools are merely boarding-houses which have taken the wrong turning. They are makeshifts, called into being to cope with a popular demand. They have none of the qualities which go to make a good school. The rooms are small: they have no grounds: they suffer from every possible disadvantage. BUT—they are in Eastbourne, Bexhill, Margate, Broadstairs, or Brighton; and that is enough for the average parent.