Public School Magazine, March 1902
IN the matter of excuses. Excuses, as you doubtless know, are the real basis of life at school. They are the basis of work, and work, so they say, is the reason of a school’s being. (Inferior writers would have said raison d’être. J. Point writes home-manufactured English. Support home institutions and order early). The making of excuses is an art. Anybody can tell a lie, and nearly everybody does. But to make a good excuse, one must not ignore the truth. The truth must be there, but somewhat out of focus. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” says Thucydides or somebody. Very true. “But,” he goes on to say, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” That is the point. Of course, the web we weave is at first inclined to be tangled. Our first services at ping-pong are mostly faults, and our first manœuvres on the bicycle mainly wobbles. But we improve. Our motto is “Higher up there!” and we progress. Before us, like a star, gleams the Perfect Excuse. To that we strive. And in due season, like a certain lady, we get right there.
The most perfect excuse I ever heard, exclusive of my own masterpieces, was made by one who until that time had shown no special aptitude for the game. He used, of course, to tell the usual work-a-day lies about headaches and leaving the book at school, but the only real excuse he ever made was when the Head Master came one day to take the Form, and asked him why he had not done his work. “If you please, sir,” said he—and he assured a “Daily Mail” representative and a “Star” man afterwards that he spoke quite on the spur of the moment—“I had to have my hair cut.” The Head Master inspected his hair—it was of the strength and consistency of barbed wire—and admitted that it was not bad.
Another reasonably good specimen of its class was presented by a boy who came to school every morning by train. He gave as a reason for lateness that, when he reached the station, he found that he had left his money at home. This excuse was, perhaps, sound rather than brilliant, but affords a good example of the proportion in which fact and fiction should be blended. The youth had left his money at home, but he had had quite enough with him to pay his fare. Also the money he had left at home consisted of one shilling with a hole in it, which had been rejected on different occasions by the railway company, the local confectioner, a crossing-sweeper, and a tobacconist (to whose shop he had gone to buy a canary—what did you think he went for?). Thus he could have quieted his conscience—if he had possessed even the relics of one, which he did not—with the thought that what he said was the literal truth.
If one is in the habit of doing a large business in the way of excuses, it is best to keep some sort of a memorandum book, to prevent vain repetition. An excuse is like a rocket. You fire it off, and it soars heavenwards in a blaze of glory. Try it again, and you get no result.
This book should be carefully divided up into headings, and indexed. An excuse which will do excellently on such an occasion as coming to school with work unprepared, will be of small use if you meet the Head Master out of bounds. Similarly the speech shaped to the end of mollifying your House captain when you miss three catches off his bowling in an over will fall quite flat if you try it when caught flashing a piece of looking-glass in school. “The sun was in my eyes,” is suitable to the one emergency, but in the other the sun is probably in the Master’s eyes, and that is why he is complaining. Better, perhaps, to say that your hand slipped, though even that is not absolutely satisfying.
However, you must use your discretion. I am assuming that you have some.
This, I believe, is the last “Under the Flail” article I shall pen. In future, tragedies rather better than Shakespeare-Bacon will occupy my leisure time. (Look out for “The Blood Spot,” in five acts). This month, therefore, I must claim leave to reminisce at greater length than usual. The following remarks are our special cut-price article which must be cleared: the last remains of a bankrupt’s stock: the property of an officer going abroad: and several other things.
On reading school stories one is always oppressed with a certain sense of envy. At schools of fiction so much seems to happen. There is none of the drab monotony which sometimes oppresses one at a real Public School, generally in the Winter Term. Not a day goes by without some episode of interest. And then the conversations! The sound, sober sense of the seniors, the jimp, jovial jauntiness of the juniors, the precious polished periods of the pedagogues! Ah, me!
And yet one does somehow bring away stories of one’s school, which, if they serve no other end, at least give you something to talk about to some bore of an Old Boy who waylays you in your restaurant, it may be, or in the railway carriage, from which escape is impossible.
I remember once, during my first years at school, an American youth achieved a certain measure of fame by the free and even patronising manner of his attitude towards the staff. The highest point he ever reached was, I think, when he met the Head Master in the cloisters one morning, after searching for him all over the buildings. The cloisters happened to be crowded, for it was close upon the hour for afternoon school. When, therefore, this genial sport from Way Back, took the Head Master familiarly by the arm, and said: “Crimes! There now, if you arn’t just the man I was looking for,” there was something of a sensation. That sort of thing marks a boy out from the common herd.
Another foreigner, a Siamese—probably a prince of sorts,—waited on the Head after morning school one day, and, prefacing his observations with an excursus on the subject of hirsute adornments in general, expressed a wish to grow a beard like his, and could the Head tell him how it was to be done? I do not remember that that gentleman gave him information likely to be of any material assistance to him, and shortly afterwards he returned to Siam, the Head expressing his entire approval of the step.
Yet another freak, an Englishman this time, took to himself a six-chambered revolver and picked off the House-master’s pet dog at a time when the faithful animal was out for a walk with his master. It was a really excellent shot, but the manner of the Head towards the marksman in the subsequent interview, was cold rather than enthusiastic. He left. Perhaps the purest moments of enjoyment that ever fell to my lot at school, occurred in the course of the bi-weekly mathematical lesson. From our point of view, the master was the perfect master. Indoor games could be indulged in up to a certain point, but not beyond that point. This lent a keen sporting interest to the lesson. You could never tell exactly where the master would draw the line. This, I take it, is the ideal state, the summum bonum. Where unlimited license in the matter of ragging—I use the vernacular—is permitted, a surfeit is inevitable. To enjoy a game thoroughly, there must be opposition. One of the most popular sports was connected with a gigantic globe which stood in a corner of the room by the blackboard. It was always a mystery to us how this globe had got into the room. It was too big, much too big, to have come in through the door, and the community was divided into two schools of thought, the first holding that the block had been built round the globe, which disposed of the difficulties mentioned above, the other asserting that it had been placed in the room when small, and had since grown.
The question was usually referred at last to the master himself, and this was one of the places where he used to draw the line. He had been asked that question by some thousands of boys in his time, and was inclined to be tired of it. To touch this globe was also a certain way of courting destruction.
This master used to set sums, and pass round what he called “solutions.” These were large sheets of paper, with each sum worked out by him to a satisfactory ending in an extraordinarily neat hand. It was always the custom for each member of the Form, before passing the solutions to his neighbour, to tear them slightly. “Tears, idle tears,” as Tennyson remarks. By the time the papers came back to their owner, they were in a rather dishevelled state. Upon this the master would say “Who tore these solutions?” in what Mr. M. P. Shiel describes as an “awful, pallid voice.” Nobody answered. “Did you tear these solutions?” he then went on to ask, addressing the youth at the head of the Form. The answer was, of course, in the negative. If the master had said, “Did you make this small tear in the top left hand corner of these solutions?” he would have acknowledged the fact instantly. But to claim the credit for the whole work would naturally be a piece of flat dishonesty. In the end a compromise was generally effected. A fresh copy of the solutions was made by the Form, and the matter dropped—till next time.
This particular master would stand no nonsense from the animal kingdom. If a wasp entered the Form-room, either by accident or design, he did not adopt a feeble, Exeter Hall policy, and flap it gently out of the window with a duster. He fell upon that wasp, and made matters exceedingly brisk and exciting for him. Beetles, when they appeared, he slew without mercy, and the spot, the discoloured plank, where he trod on a promising young mouse one morning is still one of the first sights shown to the new-comer.
French was a fruitful source of quiet fun. It generally is. On one blissful afternoon, I remember, the French Master kept the Upper Fifth in after four, forgetting that on the day previous he had invited the attendance of the Remove and Lower Fifth at the same time. When the first of these Forms arrived, there was barely standing-room left. The place was a species of Black Hole. And then the Lower Fifth began to stroll in. They cleared the place somehow, though it took time. After that the Master started an engagement-book, and kept it up to date.
As a rule, ordinary Form work was taken more seriously, but even then time was found for occasional revelry. One really scientific form of ragging was invented (and, I think, patented) by a certain youth of ingenuity above the average. His first move was to make a noise. Thereupon, in nine cases out of ten, the Form Master would ask, “Who made that noise?”
“What sort of noise, sir?” he would reply, with an innocent expression on his face. Then, if luck were with him, the Form Master would oblige amidst applause with a reproduction of the sound. The flaw in this game was that it could only be played at long intervals. Time staled its variety.
In one of the Form-rooms there was a skylight at the top of the door, and the Master was greatly annoyed by boys, whom he had previously sent out of the room, climbing up to this and looking in at the Form. One day, after he had spoken to a certain individual repeatedly on this subject, he sent him out of the room. Happening to look at the skylight a minute afterwards, he saw what he took to be his hands appearing on the lower rim of the said skylight. He determined to catch him in the act. He crept to the door and flung it open. The boy was standing at the other end of the passage regarding him with marked astonishment, and on the skylight, with the fingers pointing into the room, were his gloves.
And here the past becomes suddenly a blank.
“Oh, memory, that which I gave thee
To guard in thy garner yestreen,
Never thinking that thou could’st behave thee
So basely, has gone from thee clean.”
the last article: This was the final issue of the Public School Magazine; see sidebar of the menu. But Wodehouse remembered and reused some of the classroom stunts he mentions in this article:
gigantic globe: makes another appearance in chapter VIII of The Gold Bat
tears in “solutions”: also in chapter VIII of The Gold Bat
What sort of noise?: also asked by O’Hara in chapter XVIII of The Gold Bat
Oh, memory: Opening lines of “Flight” by Charles Stuart Calverley (1831–1884), slightly paraphrased.