Vanished times

Gerald Haigh

I love this photograph. The two women are mothers, perhaps. The small boy is still, pensive, serious, for all the world as if he were waiting for a bus. But of course, if he really were waiting for a bus, he would be jigging about and laughing. Whereas if an adult stood on the stump, he would be making a great "look at me" fuss about it. Of such innocent beauty is childhood constructed.

It is a beauty that is caught time and time again in Village School (Comus Pounds 15) a book of almost 100 wonderful black and white photographs of life in a small school (now, inevitably, closed) by the veteran award-winning photo-journalist Bryn Campbell. Further description would be futile, but I promise you that this is a book to lift the spirit. Buy it, pass it round, laugh, and be moved. And then leave it in the library for the delight of the children.

Summer is upon us, and if the season evokes for you the wisteria scented days of lost youth, and brings on the desire to read of sad and vanished times, then you will much enjoy A Dear and Noble Boy, edited by R A Barlow and H V Bowen (Leo Cooper Pounds 15.95) the tale, told largely through hislively letters home, of Louis Stokes, a public schoolboy killed on the Somme.

In this country at least, nowhere is the carnage of the Great War more graphically shown than in the war memorials of our great public schools. The soldier most likely to be killed, you see, was the young lieutenant - first over the top, pistol in hand. And, such was the class structure of the Army, the lad with the pistol was likely to be from a public school - "The voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks . . ." as Henry Newbolt had it.

Hence the dismal roll calls - 749 old boys of Marlborough were killed, 1,157 Etonians, 683 from Rugby. By and large, of those who went to war from those schools, one in five live on as names on chapel memorials. Louis Stokes was born in 1897. In 1915 he left Rugby School for the Royal Marines Light Infantry. In November 1916 he was killed. His earlier letters throw a fascinating light on life at Rugby before the Great War - "Toast fagging has started . . . At 5.15 all toast fags rush into the kitchen and seize toasting forks . . ."

Then come the war letters, still those of a schoolboy, filled with tales of "rags" and protestations of normality. His last letter, written on 11 November, said "I am having great fun, as I hope you are." Two days later he was killed in the attack on Beaumont Hamel. He was 19 years old.

John Harrison, too, went to war, though thankfully, he came home, and went on to build a successful academic career as a social historian, eventually becoming professor of history at Sussex University. In one of the most evocative passages of his autobiography (Scholarship Boy: a personal history of the mid-twentieth century Rivers Oram Press Pounds 16.95) he tells of his wartime courtship of his wife Margaret - how, in 1942, on embarkation leave, and in love, he borrowed money from his mother and bought an engagement ring. "We entered the long dark tunnel of our separation: it was three years and eight months before we saw each other again."

The years passed, though. "Our reunion on Leicester station repeated for me the overwhelming sensation I had felt when I saw her first, five years earlier." John Harrison has written a very readable chronicle of a full life, written with a social historian's eye for the background. It is a fascinating portrait of mid-century middle England - scholarships, semi- detached houses, a Standard Nine in '37, a Ford Anglia in '55 - and it will bring back memories for many readers. Cars feature strongly in parts of John Harrison's book, which gives it added value if, like me, you tend, when watching old B Movies, to look past the actors at the lovely black police Wolseleys in the background.

For the same reason, I quite took to American academic Vaughan Davis Bornet's autobiography (An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America, Bornet Books, Oregon $18) for he has a section on the cars he has owned. How I envied him those huge Detroit gas guzzlers - a '49 Packard, an Oldsmobile Starfire Convertible, a Pontiac Bonneville. Like John Harrison, this author portrays himself as a product of his time, and provides some useful insights into life in academic Middle America.

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