Public School Magazine, January 1902


SOME years ago an elderly person, who constantly presumes on the fact that he is my uncle, expressed a hope that I was not in the habit of using cribs. I said that I was not, adding thoughtfully that I had no money to buy them with, and that it would be nice to have some money, because I could then buy many of the necessaries of life which had hitherto been denied to me. I went on to observe that there was rather a special line in biscuits now on sale at the school shop, but, of course, as I had no money, I could not buy any. Also, I wanted a new bat. It was a pity I had no money—and how was Auntie? Now you would have thought that that would have had some result. Not at all. My uncle was glad I did not use cribs, and he must be going now because he had a train to catch. It was at that moment that I invented an entirely new and original form of capital punishment, and yearned to apply it.

But in this matter of cribs.

“Providence,” says Mr. Gilbert, “rarely inflicts a bane without supplying the antidote,” referring to the fact that when anyone says to you “Well, what is it?” you can always reply, “What is what?” In the same way Providence, while creating work, at the same time supplied the human race with cribs. Moralists denounce these aids to study, but how they can do so in the face of simple logic is to me a mystery. If you told one of them that his best way from St. Paul’s to Victoria was to go via Dover, he would almost instantly suspect a fallacy in your reasoning, and in a day or two he could probably tell you exactly in what this fallacy consisted. Yet he will himself inform you without a blush that the only sensible way of preparing a play of Aeschylus is to look up all the words in the dictionary, and disregard the excellent translation which Mr. Bohn has been at so many pains to publish for your benefit. Really, really.

Another point. A crib is not always a crib. In time it becomes a translation, on the analogy of the tadpole and the frog. When you see a frog the very picture of respectability with its white waistcoat and old gentlemanly demeanour, you find it hard to believe that it was once a tadpole. You feel that it would refuse to credit such a thing if you informed it of the fact. In a word,

“It is never, never saddled with its babyhood’s defect,
But earns from everyone consideration and respect.”

Just so with cribs. The moment a crib develops into a translation all need for concealment is at an end. You use it in Form, and lend it to the Form Master, and are generally proud of it. This happens when one enters the Sixth, as a rule. Not before. Why not before? Because a person happens to be in the Upper Fifth instead of the Sixth, why should he be deprived of the pure pleasures of cribbing in Form. Is he a man on human plan designed, or is he not? I pause for a reply.

The need of concealment certainly adds a spice of excitement to the daily lesson, and promotes activity of the inventive powers. There is a story of a medical student who was observed by the examiner to lift his blotting-pad repeatedly and look with keen interest at something that lay beneath it. The examiner was a man who existed simply for the sake of detecting something of this kind, so, waiting his opportunity, he uttered a wild war-whoop, cleared three rows of desks with one bound, and alighted by the student’s side, having done the distance, as it was estimated, in a trifle under level time.

“Sir?” said the student, politely.

“Minion,” thundered the examiner, “what guilty secret, what cupboarded skeleton are you hiding beneath that blotting-paper?”

“I will not deceive you, sir,” began the student. “You had better not, sir,” said the examiner.

“Before proceeding, kindly note that there is nothing up my sleeve. Under this blotting-paper is a photograph, a photograph, sir, of the lady who, who - - -”

Here he broke down and sobbed.

“It inspires you, I presume?” said the examiner.

The student in a voice choked with sobs gave him to understand that inspiration was no word for it.

“I should like to see it,” said the examiner.

“You shall, sir,” replied the student, and removed the blotting-paper. There was the photograph, as he had said.

The examiner was satisfied. He smiled, and, as if unconsciously, straightened his tie and gave a twist to his moustache. Then he resumed his seat. The other students hastily replaced in their pockets the textbooks they had been absorbing during the conversation, and the gentleman with the photograph turned it back-upwards again and began once more to copy down the formulae which were neatly gummed upon it. He passed with honours.

Some experts hold that it is best to condense one’s notes into a very small space, and place the slip of paper containing them inside a watch. There was once a youth who did this. He was, however, of a cautious disposition, and thought it would be as well to have a sort of dress-rehearsal beforehand. So on the day of a Vergil paper he gummed into his watch a slip bearing the legend “sold again.” He could do a good Vergil paper without artificial aid. What he wished to know was whether it would be safe to try the same plan during the Livy Examination. He had hardly glanced at the watch when he was called up by the examiner.

“I want to look at that watch,” said he.

The youth (call him Smith) assumed an air of injured innocence, but gave up his watch. The Master read the legend, and sent him up to the Head Master with a note, which was duly honoured on presentation. Smith resumed his seat on his return with some diffidence.

The following day, thinking that the Master would not be likely to suspect anything after the previous day’s happenings, he inserted his crib in his watch. To his surprise, he was called up again after a hasty glance at the crib, the Master took up his pen, and began to write another note. “One moment, sir,” said Smith. “I am all attention, Smith,” said the Master. “May I make a remark, sir?” “A hundred, if you wish it.” “Yesterday I was not cribbing, and I was—er—submitted to the crude but effective discipline of the flagellum?” “Such are the facts of the case,” replied the Master. “And to-day, when I really am cribbing, the same thing is going to happen?” “You have grasped the situation with wonderful accuracy, Smith.” “Then,” said the youth, bitterly but more in sorrow than in anger, “all I can say is that you don’t seem to know your own silly mind.” No, that story is not true. I was told it by a friend.

I always enjoy that scene in “Eric” where they pin the crib to Mr. Gordon’s desk. It is a luminous idea, and, if I remember rightly, worked admirably until it was discovered owing to the shocking bungling of Eric himself. “The Crib in Fiction” would not make much of an article, however. I can remember no other instance of actual cribbing in Form in the whole range of school literature (that is to say as much of the whole range of school literature as I have read). Cribbing out of school is, of course, common. Like a false income-tax return, it is expected of you. The method adopted by most sportsmen is the theft of the examination papers, or rather the exchanging of them for the hero’s tooth-brush or cigar-case which is left behind on the table to be cleared up in the last chapter.

Quite an ingenious idea was that which occurred to an acquaintance of my own. He used to sit on the back desk, and do his papers with the aid of a crib pinned to the back of the person in front of him. In this way he got along quite comfortably for some little time. One day, however, towards the end of the summer examinations the Master in charge invited his Form to take off their coats, and work in their shirtsleeves, the weather being warm. Only one accepted the invitation. He was, of course, the one to whose coat the paper had been pinned. It took my friend a considerable time to explain to the Master why he had only got four per cent. in that paper.

Now, of course, this is all very wrong and horrid, so to speak, and it is quite time it was put down, and stamped underfoot by a hand of iron, as it were. But it never will be till the authorities go right to the root of the matter. There is a sentence in Barry Pain’s excursus on “Fancy Pens” which applies exactly to the situation. He is speaking of the many methods of cleaning pens. After detailing several he concludes as follows:— “But all these methods merely alleviate. They do not cure. . . . It is the filthy habit of dipping them in ink that lies at the root of the trouble.” Now the meanest intellect can see that in those words is truth, keen, practical truth containing absolutely no fatty matter and bearing the signature of the firm on every bottle. And what is the moral? The author goes on to tell us. Do not dip your pens in the ink, and they will not become dirty. They may even, he says, acquire a pleasant aroma from being used as tobacco-stoppers. Apply this to the use of cribs. Surely it must be plain that it is the unspeakable habit of setting work that induces youths to use cribs. Do away with work and cribs will perish simultaneously. The infant of the future will, I have no doubt, continue to lie in his little crib, but, if my advice receive the attention it deserves, the necessity which drives the scholar of to-day to lie about his little crib will be gone.



Printed anonymously as “By an Expert” in Public School Magazine; entered by Wodehouse as “Cribs” in Money Received for Literary Work.

 Arthur Robinson notes four W. S. Gilbert quotations in this piece:
Providence rarely inflicts a bane: “The Key of the Strong Room”, Ch. 2
never saddled with babyhood’s defect: Bab Ballad “Mister William”
a man on human plan designed: “The Sailor Boy to His Lass”
a false income-tax return: Ruddigore, Act II.