Public School Magazine, September 1901
“POINT,” said the Poet Laureate, slipping cleverly past me, and occupying the only chair in the room worth sitting on, “your remarks on the subject of food at the Public Schools last month interested me strangely. Where are the matches?”
I passed him the matches.
“And a little more soda-water, please. Thanks. Yes, as I was saying, they interested me strangely.” I could have wished that he had chosen some other adverb. “Excessively” would have been so much better. But I made no comment. “You see,” he resumed, “at a Public School no attention is paid to the fact that every member differs in temperament from every other member. That, to my mind, is the flaw in the whole system. Take an example. Matches, please. Thanks. As I was saying, take an example. At one o’clock on any afternoon in the term the dinner-bell sounds, that silvery messenger of joy profound, the dinner-bell. What follows? Twenty or more boys—call it twenty-five—proceed to the dining-room, and seat themselves. A liveried menial uncovers the joint—call it beef. Well, there you are. Twenty-five boys, all of different temperaments, have to satisfy the void with beef. On the face of it this looks all right. ‘Is the beef wholesome?’ asks the parent. ‘Rather so,’ replies the House Master, ‘My beef is the envy and despair of half the households in the United Kingdom.’ ‘Good,’ says the parent. ‘Sorry to trouble you. It’s all right, Alonzo, my son (or Archibald, as the case may be), wire in. The beef’s quite wholesome.’ And the twenty-five Alonzos and Archibalds wire in accordingly.
“Now look into the matter more closely. Examine the temperaments of these twenty-five bright young lads. They all differ. One is martial, another is critical, another is, like myself, poetic, and so on. Well, the extraordinary influence the food has on the temperament has been proved beyond a question. Rice pudding and lemonade make for æstheticism. Boiled mutton, especially with caper sauce, cannot fail to render the eater a cynic and a believer in the general hollowness of things. Beef makes a man aggressive. There you have it. For the youth with the martial temperament the beef could not be improved upon. Matches, please. Thanks. Not too much soda-water. Right. It makes him long for triumphs on the tented field, and so on. Fill the school corps with beef—‘bulls-meat,’ as that Kipling calls it.”
“You don’t like Kipling, do you?”
He took no notice of the question.
“Fill the school corps with beef,” he continued, “on the eve of a field-day or camp, and they will simply romp through the opposing forces. But what of the boy with the poetic soul? What effect does the beef have on him? Ah, what? Why, it is positively ruinous. A half-formed sonnet will sink beneath it, and ballads that might have equalled Jameson’s Ride will simply refuse to compete.”
“How did you manage, then?” I asked. “Surely you had to eat the same as the rest.”
“Too true,” said he. “I had. And, if you will believe me, during the whole of my school-life I never produced a single poem that was worthy of being ranked with Shelley or Keats.”
“You surprise me,” said I. “What happened when you left school?”
“I changed my diet, and began to soar at once. Only this morning, under the influence of weak tea and sardines, I threw off the following little ballade. Just listen.”
I listened. This was the ballade:
“Stealing impalpably up from the basement,
Up with a force that ’twere hopeless to quell,
Streaming impetuous in through the casement,
Comes to my nostrils a heavenly smell.
Smell! Nay, a scent as of flowery dell!
Scent that will haunt me for ever and aye.
Hark to the message it hastens to tell,
Kippers, hurrah! for your breakfast to-day.
“Say, shall I spurn it, this message of gladness,
Turning with scorn from the succulent feast?
That were indeed reprehensible madness,
Fitting not man but the soulless beast.
Welcome as Dawn that appears in the East,
Sweet as the odour of new-mown hay,
Pungent as smoke when the shooting has ceased,
Kippers, hurrah! for your breakfast to-day.”
“Now that’s really good,” he said. “I don’t want to seem to boast, but I must say that if Shakespeare has ever written anything to equal it, I am quite at a loss to remember what. Well, to point the moral, I could not have written those lines on beef. Don’t say I wrote them on paper, because it isn’t funny. To work round to my moral once more. What I am trying to impress on mankind is this, that unless some change is made in Public School diet, the race of poets will die out, and then they’ll be sorry they didn’t listen to me.”
“What do you propose to do, then?”
“Just this. It is very simple. At present only the mind is specially cultivated for any particular career. A father sees his son in the nursery playing with his tin soldiers. The sight impresses him. There is a je-ne-sais-quoi about the way the infant distributes his peas, so that the English army always wins, that constrains him to say at dinner that night, ‘Maria, that boy must go into the army. Mark my words.’ They send him to school, and he is placed in the army class, where his mind is filled with those subjects—Latin, for instance, and French—without a thorough knowledge of which no man can be expected to shoot straight or handle his sword in a proper manner. But what of his body? There no special provision, or rather provisions, is made. They give him beef, it is true, but they also give him rice-pudding, apple-tart, and a peculiar mixture of figs and suet which it outrages my soul even to think of, and thereby they run a great risk of making him either a Radical stump-orator or a dramatic critic. No, Point, let us unite our forces, I the greatest poet of the age and you, the finest prose-writer, and let us preach this message of reform in the Public Schools.”
He was going on to say more, I think, when the sound of a voice filtered in through the door. Somebody was quarrelling in the hall with my head-footman. “You say he’s engaged?” said the voice, “The fact of the biznai is, you burbler,—”
“Oh Lor,” exclaimed the Poet Laureate. “Good night, Point. I must go.”
And he disappeared through a window. I have not seen him since, nor has he written to me, but I think highly of his ideas for the practical reform of Public School food, and if he intends to go any further into the matter, I am with him. My foot is on my native carpet, and my name is
Alfred Austin (1835–1913) was Poet Laureate at the time. Many commentators thought him a very minor poet, especially in contrast to his predecessor Tennyson. His 1896 poem “Jameson’s Ride”, seeking to glorify a bungled British attempt at a coup in the Transvaal Republic, was widely ridiculed, damaging his literary reputation. An 1897 note in Munsey’s Magazine says that his last book “received perhaps one tenth as much public attention as Mr. Kipling’s latest volume.” No doubt Austin’s opinion of Kipling might be colored by envy. I have not found evidence of his opinions on school food.
Wodehouse brings the Poet Laureate on again in a later “Under the Flail” column, and mentions Austin by name in “The Hustler’s Rest Cure” and “The Flowing Tide” in 1906–07.
biznai: Kipling uses this rare word at least half a dozen times in Stalky & Co., so it is clearly intended to signal who the caller is.
“My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor”: Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy.