Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Honours Board

We went to Carpe Diem today, our favorite coffee house, which was teeming with college students studying for midterms and writing furiously on their computers. Of course they could have been writing e-mail. Some were definitely surfing the internet. No cell phones, though. Minimal conversation. At any rate there we were, all of us quiet, sipping coffee, and reading. The atmosphere of a library annex.

I continue to swoop upon out-of-print middlebrow novels at university libraries. My taste for the underrated is galvanized by my infatuation with Pamela Hansford Johnson, my favorite writer of the moment. I just finished The Honours Board, which is one of her better books, a fascinating portrayal of the lives of the disparate, volatile, questing, and sometimes anguished staff of a liberal boys’ prep school. Johnson's books are really novels of character rather than style: her plain style is serviceable and energetic and her intelligence shines through, but it is her energetic characters who keep you reading. Even when her plots falter (which is seldom), her characters are unusually well-drawn - though often like no one you would want to meet in real life.

In this novel, however, the characters are equally divided between the genial and the horrific. The headmaster, Annick, and his super-competent wife, Grace, strive to provide a “family” atmosphere for the faculty, genuinely wanting harmony in the school, smoothing the conflicts between good teachers and demonized, conservative and liberal, popular and unpopular. But Annick is increasingly nervous about the school’s financial problems and the failure of his students, despite good teaching, to move on to top public schools. So the novel begins at a double crisis: Annick is resisting the offer of a conservative - and sadistic - math and gym teacher, Rupert Massinger, who, with his gym teacher wife, Blossom, want to buy the school; and he is also welcoming a brilliant student, Quillan, who he hopes will win a scholarship and raise the reputation of the school. There is pressure on all sides.

But the book really focuses on the secrets of the faculty. Johnson’s teachers are not stereotypical, and it is their very individuality that makes their "case histories" and neuroses believable. The terrible Rupert, who is an unsuccessful math teacher , has a secret drawer of kinky literature (the less said the better) and insists on borderline-rape-style sex with the secretary who discovers it . Mrs. Murray, the French teacher, another uncharismatic teacher, is hysterical and lonely, older than most of the teachers at 56, and socially inept: “She had never been able to accept the kindly attempts of the Annicks to draw her into the family life of the staff; asked for sherry or a chat, she would almost invariably find some excuse for not going.” Yet she desperately needs support. “As usual the boys were stealthily out of hand. Richard Searle had dipped a snail in an ink-pot and was setting it to trail across his book. David Maitland was making spit-balls and piling them up like miniature cannon balls in a heap. Morgan was humming under his breath, just quietly enough to escape rebuke...”

(Oh dear! Johnson must have taught at a private school.)

Then there is the brilliant Canning, a scientist from the lower-middle class, who lives a sort of alternate childhood through creating wonderful lessons and labs at this school for the upper classes. The star teacher of Downs Park, Canning is constantly being offered huge salaries to go work in industry . But his affair with Annick’s daughter, a beautiful widow with a complex sex life, is one of the draws of the schools. One strait-laced teacher's wife is a frivolous, witty alcoholic, who unfortunately falls down all over campus and during the art classes she attempts to teach. And then there is Betty Cope, the ultra-feminine assistant matron, a lesbian who inspires unrequited love. And on and on.

Anyone who has taught at a private school will appreciate this book, though it is not just a school novel.

Oh, the picture is of Eton, by the way. I couldn't find anything better.

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