Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Late Review: School Story by Iain Mackenzie-Blair
by Iain Mackenzie-Blair
Three Cats Press, Wester Ross, 2005
Seven thirteen year old boys enter Ansell's House at Cranchester Shool, one of the major public schools in England we are told. The book follows them through their school career. Its title is ironic, calling to mind the school stories of the Victorian and Edwardian era where, through pluck and... well usually just pluck, with a bit of honesty and good luck thrown in, the dashing hero gallops through his school career seeing off a couple of bullies, being caught once or twice bunking off (but always for the most noble of reasons) or perhaps there is a bit of scrumping, winning the cross-country and eventually reconciling with the adult world into which he is to be disgorged. One of those kinds of school stories, this ain't.
The story is set during the second world war but is framed by a narrator who is looking back at his school career from old age. From the beginning we know that events took place in this House which so shamed the narrator, that he has never been able to bring himself to so much as open the alumni magazine, let alone revisit the place.
The House, Ansell's, is rife with beatings and semi-officially sanctioned sexual activity. The boys we are following are plunged into a brutal, feudal system in which the praefectors dish out beatings to boys called 'tightening-up' (because they are required to tighten their buttocks before the blow lands) and where the new intake are required to act as 'warmers', an unusual take on the fagging system where the new boy is to warms the bed of the praefector by lying in it for a while before going off to his own cold sheets in the big dormitory. Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Angus, a sensitive boy whose innocence, particularly on arrival at the school, is almost legendary among his peers, even his nickname reflects his naivete. But over time we see this innocence worn away, and eventually corrupted. This is essentially a book about the corruption of innocence. The boys are left to manage themselves with only a quasi-medieval framework of disciplines and traditions to go on. As the story progresses we feel the weight of an impending disaster getting heavier and heavier upon us and there is real bathos in the final events that have had such a formative and negative impact on the narrator's life.
The central character, Angus (actually his surname), is beautifully and sensitively drawn, every nuance of his feeling and inner life feels authentic. A number of the other characters also have real depth to them. But herein lies also the novel's only problem. It is clear pretty soon that our anonymous narrator is one of the boys to whom these events are happening and you would have to be a fairly dense reader not to know from very early on which one. So you have a book which purports, until near the very end, to be written by one person, primarily from the point of view of another (who are actually the same person) and which then includes several small passages from the point of view of other characters to show us events happening when our main man isn't present. This problem with point of view is further compounded, or made more interesting, when we ask where the autobiographical tone comes from. The character of Angus is interested in poetry and writing, he is Scottish and the book is written by a well-known Scottish poet, who was also a Housemaster at a major public school for nearly twenty years. The publisher also appears to be the author. The author would have been of an age to attend school during the war.
That said, the issue of point of view, and a slight over use of coincidences, is only a minor irritation in a superb book. As the walls close around these seven boys and they become subsumed into Ansells (never into the school - the primary loyalty is always to the House), as the forces of conservatism and tradition begin to constrict around them, to push out all but their basest instincts of domination and survival of the fittest, the ride becomes compelling. Several online reviewers claim to have read this through in one sitting and, although I didn't, I can appreciate the sentiment. The book is gripping from beginning to end. Much is made of the comparison with Lord of the Flies: what would have happened if Ralph and Piggy and the others had made it back to school? is the question asked. Clearly it would be foolish to compare the book stylistically with one of the greatest prose masters of the English language and Nobel Prize winner, William Golding, but there is, nonetheless, some real commonality between the two books. Angus is an extremely lovable character and despite what he sees as his participation in the horror at the end of the story, it is precisely the fact that he can feel some culpability (which most of his contemporaries don't) that makes him stand out. This book deserves to be much better known in the literature of public schools and has all the hall marks of a classic.