“It was about a year after I hit Johnny Hale in the face that I left St Cyprian’s for ever. It was the end of a winter term. With a sense of coming out from darkness into sunlight I put on my Old Boy’s tie as we dressed for the journey. I well remember the feeling of emancipation, as though the tie had been at once a badge of manhood and an amulet against Flip’s voice and Sambo’s cane. I was escaping from bondage. It was not that I expected, or even intended, to be any more successful at a public school than I had been at St Cyprian’s. But still, I was escaping. I knew that at a public school there would be more privacy, more neglect, more chance to be idle and self-indulgent and degenerate. For years I had been resolved — unconsciously at first, but consciously later on — that when once my scholarship was won I would ‘slack off’ and cram no longer. This resolve, by the way, was so fully carried out that between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two or three I hardly ever did a stroke of avoidable work…
I base these generalizations on what I can recall of my own childhood out look. Treacherous though memory is, it seems to me the chief means we have of discovering how a child’s mind works. Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child’s vision of the world. Consider this, for example. How would St Cyprian’s appear to me now, if I could go back, at my present age, and see it as it was in 1915? What should I think of Sambo and Flip, those terrible, all-powerful monsters? I should see them as a couple of silly, shallow, ineffectual people, eagerly clambering up a social ladder which any thinking person could see to be on the point of collapse. I would no more be frightened of them than I would be frightened of a dormouse. Moreover, in those days they seemed to me fantastically old, whereas — though of this I am not certain — I imagine they must have been somewhat younger than I am now…
I have never been back to St Cyprian’s. Reunions, old boys’ dinners and such-like leave me something more than cold, even when my memories are friendly. I have never even been down to Eton, where I was relatively happy, though I did once pass through it in 1933 and noted with interest that nothing seemed to have changed, except that the shops now sold radios. As for St Cyprian’s, for years I loathed its very name so deeply that I could not view it with enough detachment to see the significance of the things that happened to me there… And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big schoolroom, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown… Now, however, the place is out of my system for good. Its magic works no longer, and I have not even enough animosity left to make me hope that Flip and Sambo are dead or that the story of the school being burnt down was true.”
Pulled from the ending of George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” first published in 1952 in the Partisan Review. It’s thought he wrote the essay a few years prior, sometime in early 1947, just before he started working on Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a lot of gold in the essay, but I especially like that understated, forgiving note on which he ends.
There’s more like this:
- Julian Barnes assesses his memory of childhood friends
- Donna Tart on the immense power of a teacher who believes in you
- Orwell’s biographer, Christopher Hitchens discusses his mom