Public School Magazine, December 1900

WORK is supposed to be the centre round which School life revolves—the hub of the school wheel, the lodestar of the schoolboy’s existence, and a great many other things. “You come to school to work,” is the formula used by masters when sentencing a victim to the wailing and gnashing of teeth provided by two hours’ extra tuition on a hot afternoon. In this, I think, they err, and my opinion is backed up by numerous scholars of my acquaintance, who have even gone so far—on occasions when they themselves have been the victims—as to express positive disapproval of the existing state of things. In the dear, dead days, beyond recall, I used often to long to put the case to my Form Master in its only fair aspect, but always refrained from motives of policy. Masters are so apt to take offence at the well-meant endeavours of their Form to instruct them in the way they should go.

What I should have liked to have done would have been something after this fashion. Entering the sanctum of the Head Master, I should have motioned him to his seat, if he were seated already—have assured him that to rise was unnecessary. I should then have taken a seat myself, taking care to preserve a calm fixity of demeanour, and finally, with a preliminary cough, I should have embarked upon the following moving address. “My dear sir, believe me when I say that your whole system of work is founded on a fallacious dream and reeks of rottenness. No, no, I beg that you will not interrupt me. The real state of the case, if I may say so, is briefly this: a boy goes to school to enjoy himself, and, on arriving, finds to his consternation that a great deal more work is expected of him than he is prepared to do. What course, then, does he take? He proceeds to do as much work as will steer him safely between the, ah—I may say, the Scylla of punishment and the Charybdis of being considered what my, er—fellow-pupils euphoniously term a swot. That, I think, is all this morning. Good day. Pray do not trouble to rise. I will find my way out.” I should then have made for the door, locked it, if possible, on the outside, and, rushing to the railway station, have taken a through ticket to Spitzbergen or some other place where Extradition treaties do not hold good.

But ’twas not mine to play the Tib-Gracchus, to emulate the O. Cromwell. So far from pouring my opinions like so much boiling oil into the ear of my taskmaster, I was content to play the part of andience while he did the talking, my sole remark being “Yes’r” at fixed intervals.

And yet I knew that I was in the right. My bosom throbbed with the justice of my cause. For why? The ambition of every human new-boy is surely to become like J. Essop of the first eleven, who can hit a ball over two ponds, a wood, and seven villages, rather than to resemble that pale young student, Mill-Stuart, who, though he can speak Sanscrit like a native of Sanscritia, couldn’t tell a bat from a steam-roller.

And this ambition is a laudable one. For the athlete is the product of Nature—a step towards the more perfect type of animal, while the scholar is the outcome of artificiality. What, I ask, does the scholar gain, either morally or physically, or in any other way, by knowing who was tribune of the people in 284 B.C., or what is the precise difference between the various construction of cum.? It is not as if ignorance of the tribune’s identity caused him any mental unrest. The flea does cause the ape physical unrest, which, perhaps, justifies his researches. But what excuse is there for the student? “None,” shrieks Echo enthusiastically. “None whatever.”

Our children are being led to ruin by this system. They will become Dons and think in Greek. The victim of the craze stops at nothing. He puns in Latin. He quips and quirks in Ionic and Doric. In the worst stages of the disease he will edit Greek plays and say that Merry quite misses the fun of the passage, or that Jebb is mediocre. Think, I beg of you, paterfamilias, and you, mater ditto, what your feelings would be were you to find Henry or Archibald Cuthbert correcting proofs of the “Agememnon.” and inventing “nasty ones” for Mr. Sidgwick! Very well then. Be warned.

Our bright-eyed lads are taught insane constructions in Greek and Latin from morning till night, and they come for their holidays, in many cases, without the merest foundation of a batting style. Ask them what a Yorker is, and they will say: “A man from York, though I presume you mean a Yorkshireman.” They will read Herodotus without a dictionary for pleasure, but ask them to translate the childishly simple sentence: “Trott was soon in his timber-yard with a length’un that whipped across from the off,” and they’ll shrink abashed and swear they have not skill at that, as Gilbert says.

The papers sometimes contain humourous forecasts of future education, when cricket and football shall have come to their own. They little know the excellence of the thing they mock at. When we get schools that teach nothing but games, then will the sun definitely refuse to set on the roast beef of old England. May it be soon. Some day, mayhap, I shall gather my great-great-grandsons round my knee, and tell them—as one tells tales of Faëry—that I can remember the time when work was considered the be-all and the end-all of a school career. Perchance, when my great-great-grandson John (called John after the famous Jones of that name) has brought home the prize for English Essay on “Rugby v. Association,” I shall pat his head (gently) and the tears will come to my old eyes as I recall the time when I, too, might have won a prize—for that obsolete subject, Latin Prose,—and was only prevented by the superior excellence of my thirty-and-one fellow-students, coupled, indeed, with my own inability to conjugate sum.

Such days, I say, may come. But now are the Dark Ages. The only thing that can possibly make Work anything but an unmitigated nuisance is the prospect of a ’Varsity Scholarship, and the thought that in the event of failure a ’Varsity career will be out of the question.

With this thought constantly before him, the Student can put a certain amount of enthusiasm into his work, and even go to the length of rising at five o’clock o’ mornings to drink yet deeper of the cup of knowledge. ’Varsity means games and yellow waistcoats and Proctors, and that sort of thing. It is worth working for.

But for the unfortunate individual who is barred by circumstances from participating in these joys, what inducement is there to work? Is such an one to leave the School nets in order to stew in a stuffy room over a Thucydides? I trow not.

Chapter one of my great forthcoming work “The Compleat Slacker” contains minute instructions on the art of avoiding preparation from beginning to end of term. Foremost among the words of advice ranks this maxim: Get an official list of the books you are to do, and examine them carefully with a view to seeing what it is possible to do unseen. Thus, if Vergil is among these authors, you can rely on being able to do him with success. People who ought to know better will tell you that Vergil is hard. Such a shallow device needs little comment. A scholar who cannot translate ten lines of the “Aeneid” between the time he is put on and the time he begins to speak is unworthy of pity or consideration, and if I meet him in the street I shall assuredly cut him. Aeschylus, on the other hand, is a demon, and needs careful watching, though in an emergency you can always say the reading is wrong.

Sometimes the compleat slacker falls into a trap. The saddest case I can remember is that of poor Charles Vanderpoop. He was a bright young lad, and showed some promise of rising to heights as a slacker. He fell in this fashion. One Easter term his Form had half finished a speech of Demosthenes, and the Form Master gave them to understand that they would absorb the rest during the forthcoming term. Charles, being naturally anxious to do as little work as possible during the summer months, spent his Easter holidays carefully preparing this speech, so as to have it ready in advance. What was his horror, on going back to School at the appointed date, to find that they were going to throw Demosthenes over altogether, and patronise Plato. Threats, entreaties, prayers—all were accounted nothing by the Master who had led him into this morass of troubles. It is believed that the shock destroyed his reason. At any rate, the fact remains that that term (the summer term, mark you) he won two prizes. In the following term he won three. To recapitulate his outrages from that time to the present were a harrowing and unnecessary task. Suffice it that he is now a Regius Professor, and I saw in the papers a short time ago that a lecture of his on “The Probable Origin of the Greek Negative,” created quite a furore. If this is not Tragedy with a big T, I should like to know what it is.

As an exciting pastime, too, unseen translation must rank very high. Everyone who has ever tried translating unseen must acknowledge that all other forms of excitement seem but feeble makeshifts after it. I have, in the course of a career of sustained usefulness to the human race, had my share of thrills. I have asked a strong and busy porter, at Paddington, when the Brighton train started? I have gone for the broad-jump record in trying to avoid a bicycle. I have played Spillikins and Spiropole. But never again have I felt the excitement that used to wander athwart my moral backbone when I was put on to translate a passage containing a notorious crux and seventeen doubtful readings, with only that innate genius, which is the wonder of the civilized world, to pull me through. And what a glow of pride one feels when it is all over; when one has made a glorious, golden guess at the crux, and trampled the doubtful readings under foot with inspired ease. It is like a day at the seaside.

Work is bad enough, but Examinations are worse, especially the Board Examinations. By doing from ten to twenty minutes prep. every night, the compleat slacker could get through most of the term with average success. Then came the Examinations. The dabbler in unseen translations found himself caught as in a snare. Gone was the peaceful security in which he had lulled to rest all the well-meant efforts of his guardian angel to rouse him to a sense of his duties. There, right in front of him, yawned the abyss of Retribution.

Alas! poor slacker. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. Where be his gibes now? How is he to cope with the fiendish ingenuity of the Examiners? How is he to master the contents of a book of Thucydides in a couple of days? It is a fearsome problem. Perhaps he will get up in the small hours and work by candle-light from two till eight o’clock. In this case he will start his day a mental and physical wreck. Perhaps he will try to work and be led away by the love of light reading.

In any case he will fail to obtain enough marks to satisfy the Examiners, though whether Examiners ever are satisfied, except by Harry the hero, is rather a doubtful question.

In such straits, matters resolve themselves into a sort of drama with three characters. We will call our Hero Smith.


Scene, a Study.

Dramatis Personæ.  Smith

Enter Smith (down centre).

He seats himself at table and opens a Thucydides.

Enter Conscience through ceiling (r), Mephistopheles through floor (l).

Conscience (with a kindly smile): Precisely what I was about to remark, my dear lad. A little Thucydides would be a very good thing. Thucydides, as you doubtless know, was a very famous Athenian historian. Date?

Smith: Er—um—let me see.

Meph. (aside): Look in the introduction and pretend you did it by accident.

Smith (having done so): B.C. 431 circ.

Conscience wipes away a tear.

Conscience: Thucydides made himself a thorough master of the concisest of styles.

Meph.: And in so doing became unreadably obscure.

Smith (gloomily): Hum!

Meph. (sneeringly): Ha!

Long Pause.

Conscience (gently): Do you not think, my dear lad, that you had better begin? Time and tide, as you are aware, wait for no man. And—

Smith: Yes?

Conscience: Well, you know, that examination to-morrow.

Smith: Yes?

Conscience: You have not, I fear, a very firm grasp of the subject. However, if you work hard till eleven—.

Smith (gloomily): Hum! Three hours!

Meph. (cheerily): Exactly so. Three hours. A little more if anything.
 By the way, excuse me asking, but have you prepared the subject thoroughly during the term?

Smith: My dear sir! Of course!

Conscience (reprovingly): ? ? ?

Smith: Well, perhaps not quite so much as I might have done. Such a lot of things to do this term. Cricket, for instance.

Meph.: Rather. Talking of cricket, you seemed to be shaping rather well last Saturday. I had just run up on business, and someone told me you made eighty not out. Get your century all right?

Smith (brightening at the recollection): Just a bit. 117 not out. I hit—but perhaps you’ve heard.

Meph.: Not at all, not at all. Let’s hear all about it.

(Conscience seeks to interpose, but is prevented by Meph., who eggs Smith on to talk cricket for over an hour.)

Conscience (at last; in an acid voice): That is a history of the Peloponnesian war by Thucydides on the table in front of you. I thought I would mention it, in case you had forgotten.

Smith: Great Scott, yes! Here, I say, I must start.

Conscience: Hear! Hear!

Meph. (insinuatingly): One moment. Did you say you had prepared this book during the term. Afraid I’m a little hard of hearing. Eh, what?

Smith: Well—er no, I have not. Have you ever played billiards with a walking-stick and fives-balls?

Meph.: Quite so. quite so. I quite understand. Don’t you distress yourself, old chap. You obviously can’t get through a whole book of Thucydides in under two hours, can you?

Conscience (severely): He might, by attentive application to study, master a considerable portion of the historian’s chef de œuvre in that time.

Meph.: Yes, and find that not one of the passages he had prepared was set in the paper.

Conscience: At the least, he would, if he were to pursue the course which I have indicated, greatly benefit his mind.

(Meph. gives a short, derisive laugh).

Long pause.

Meph. (looking towards bookshelf): Hullo, you’ve got a decent lot of books, pommy word you have. Rodney Stone, Vice Versa. Many Cargoes. Ripping. Ever read Many Cargoes?

Conscience (glancing at his watch): I am sorry, but I must really go now. I will see you some other day.

(Exit sorrowfully).

Meph.: Well, thank goodness he’s gone. Never saw such a fearful old bore in my life. Can’t think why you let him hang on to you so. We may as well make a night of it now, eh? No use your trying to work at this time of night.

Smith: Not a bit.

Meph.: Did you say you’d not read Many Cargoes?

Smith: Never. Only got it to-day. Good?

Meph.: Simply ripping. All short stories. Make you yell.

Smith (with a last effort): But don’t you think—

Meph.: Oh, no. Besides, you can easily get up early to-morrow for the Thucydides.

Smith: Of course I can. Never thought of that. Heave us Many Cargoes. Thanks.

(Begins to read. Meph. grins fiendishly, and vanishes through floor enveloped in red flame. Sobbing heard from the direction of the ceiling).

Scene closes.



Next morning, of course, he will over-sleep himself, and his Thucydides paper will be of such a calibre that that eminent historian will writhe in his grave.



Editor’s notes:
Gilbert: Giuseppe’s aria from Act II of The Gondoliers is slightly misquoted; “satisfying” should be “gratifying”; “troubles” should be “worries”; “which” should be “that”
Tib-Gracchus: Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, Roman consul and agrarian reformer (ca. 163–133 BC)
Merry: William Walter Merry (1835–1918), English classical scholar, clergyman, and educator
Jebb: Richard Claverhouse Jebb (1841–1905), British classical scholar and politician
Mr. Sidgwick: Probably Arthur Sidgwick (1840–1920), author of Lectures on Greek Prose, etc.
Yorker: cricket jargon for a bowled ball that hits the ground near the batsman’s feet
Trott: either Albert (1873–1914) or Harry (1866–1917) Trott, Australian cricketers; Albert also played for England
timber-yard: cricket slang for the wickets
length’un that whipped across from the off: (misspelled lenght in magazine) a ball bowled at a “good length” that bounces into the wicket from the side of the pitch which the batsman faces
shrink abashed and swear they have not skill: W. S. Gilbert, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, 2nd tableau
threats, entreaties, prayers: W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, before Act I finale: Ko-Ko to Nanki-Poo: “Threats, entreaties, prayers—all useless?”
Paddington: Rail station in London serving trains to generally westerly destinations such as Oxford, Bristol, Wales, Devon, and Cornwall; Brighton trains leave from Victoria, London Bridge, and Blackfriars stations
spillikins: a table game of pick-up sticks
spiropole: an outdoor game similar to tetherball, but using a tethered tennis ball and played with racquets
crux: a difficult point in translation, esp. one on which the correct interpretation of the entire passage depends
Rodney Stone: historical novel (1896) by Arthur Conan Doyle, with a boxing theme
Vice Versa: comic fantasy novel (1882) by F. Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie), with a souls-exchanging-bodies plot which undoubtedly inspired Wodehouse’s later novel Laughing Gas as well as many other works on the same theme
Many Cargoes: an 1896 collection of seafaring short stories by W. W. Jacobs

Neil Midkiff