I have just finished reading Nicholas Monsarrat’s ‘This is the Schoolroom.’ It’s just under 450 pages long in the version I read – no short read.
No guesses for where I first saw it – back as a teenager, on my parents’ bookshelves – though this was a book deliberately bought, not one come by as a job lot at an auction, like the Charles Garvice books and so much of the other stuff.
I didn’t read it then, though. I resolved to read it at some point in the future.
Well, it’s taken me long enough.
While ‘The Cruel Sea’ is still read along with, I believe, ‘The Tribe That Lost its Head’ – which I gather has been attacked as displaying typical colonial attitudes – I don’t think many people these days have even heard of, ‘This is the Schoolroom’. Trust me to be awkward and read it, then.
This is a book set in the UK of the thirties, and so as a matter of course is to some extent about the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War, the role of British socialists on opposing the role of fascism, and all the rest of it.
‘“I was unusually drunk the night my father died”. So opens the story of Marcus Hendrycks, maturing in that turbulent decade – the 1930s. A man who had been playing with life for 21 years, while all around him were discordant voices, hunger and death. Discovering the poverty and filth of the slums, enduring the horrors of war-racked Spain, through politics and through love, his was a pilgrimage through a world teetering on the edge of disaster. .’
I was in two minds about it. There are parts of powerful writing, but I couldn’t take to the protagonist, though he was sincere, and changes soon enough from the spoilt rich kid at Cambridge we meet in the first chapter.
He does have inherent strength, with which he meets all disasters. He meets the family’s financial collapse and the inability or refusal of his wealthy, self indulgent uncle to do anything to help him in the way of getting a job with a ‘stiff upper lip’.
At first, he lives in a shabby genteel boarding house – shades of The Rosamund Tea Rooms in Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ .
During this time, what he regards as his love affair with a society girl whose rent he was paying comes to an end when he can no longer afford to spend £30 on weekends with her (a reasonable wage then was about £5 a week).
As his money runs out, and his career as a journalist fails to take off, he then moves in an unpleasant room infected at one point with some form of bug that lives behind the wallpaper. Here he helps a neighbourng woman giving birth until the arrival of the doctor (I found the fact that none of the women rose to the occasion and helped her, leaving it to a man with no medical background, frankly incredible).
He hears another women being abused by a back street abortionist, and later discovers her dead body (the man has fled).
Later, a ‘show girl’ he knows , at first seemingly amused by his sordid surroundings, gets up to leave in disgust when the local pimp puts his head in at the door. The protagonist ‘Asks a question of extreme particularity without any preamble whatsoever. At all events, she said, “No, of course not,” with an air of finality which would have made Casanova blink.’
So far it is funny, but then – and this is one of the things that made me find the protagonist unsympathetic – he tries what seems to be borderline rape: –
‘An astonishingly crude wrangle ensued, on the lines of, “It’s a little late to back out now,” from me, and “It’s only your filthy mind,” from Helga, a wrangle followed by – well, lets call it ‘masterful persuasion’ and this in turn withered away before the cold and malignant fury with which she countered it, and degenerated into the blackest sulk I have ever wrapped myself in. The ‘starvation’ of the last few months probably had made me a little uncouth, but damn it, I thought, she had promised, she had been prophetically sweet all the evening, she had seemed as willing as I had been counting on…’
‘Finally, she raised one cool eyebrow. “Anything to say?”
‘Thus challenged, I evolved a priggish and not very effective sentence. “I leave you,” I said, “To derive what satisfaction you can from a lamentable exhibition. Good night.”’’
Hmmm. This so much follows the code of the times – that a woman did not go back to a man’s room unless she was willing for coitus and it was her fault if he got the wrong idea – that it is grimly laughable. I must remember that phrase, ‘masterful persuasion’ for future use in any stories of mine which might feature a would be rapist with a gift for euphemism.
What is disturbing for the modern reader, is that this is meant to be a sympathetic protagonist in a serious piece of literary writing, not some cardboard anti hero in escapist fiction. Obviously, if he failed with his ‘masterful persuasion’ it was because he was not violent enough to go through with it; still the whole thing left me with a distaste for Marcus Hendryks which his soul searing experiences as a volunteer from the international corps in Spain couldn’t really eradicate.
Meanwhile, apart from suffering from malnutrition – which reduces his sexual frustration – he becomes politicised, and an uncritical socialist (why do these novels never portray a mature critical socialist rather than young, blinkered ones? Not because there wen’t, or aren’t any: I suppose because there are less).
At first, in Spain, he drives a lorry of supplies – a dangerous enough job in an impossible vehicle – and gradually, he becomes drawn into the fighting and killing.
The author was, I gather, renowned as a pacifist, though also as a naval war hero during World War Two, commanding a frigate protecting supply ships in the Atlantic. He was also mentioned in dispatches.
It seems he visited Spain just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and that this led to disillusion with his earlier rigid socialist ideas – which if they were anything like those of his protagonist, were fuelled too much by youthful idealism to be able to survive the brutalities of war.
Objectively, a war in support of democracy (the fascists had revolted to overthrow the democratically elected government) is not going to be any prettier than any other sort of war, although clearly it will never be as hideous as the sort of war of extermination that Hitler’s forces enacted on the Eastern front. Finally, though, it must be a brutalising experience. Tragically, there are invariably atrocities in war and worst of all, innocents get maimed and killed; lives are ruined.
Injured and muddled, ‘”Half of me knows that we ought to take a crack at Fascism wherever the opportunity arises, and the other half has learnt, in Spain, that to join in that sort of struggle simply extends the chaos by one more man,”’ the protagonist returns to London with a wounded arm.
Then, dismally celebrating New Year in the London streets, he meets his future wife, a successful and comfortably off painter who doesn’t mind his shabby clothes, is willing to help him out financially and is eager to nurture him, wounded and traumatised as he is. She goes up to him – as the most melancholy person she has seen – and also, one suspects, as a man she finds attractive – and gives him a New Year’s kiss on the cheek, delighting him out of his melancholy. I have to admit that I did find this scene sweet, for all my distaste over his earlier attempt on the showgirl Helga.
I did wonder what Anthea would have made of Hendryks’ ‘ behaviour with her, but perhaps she would think like a Nice Girl of the times, and say that Helga brought it on herself. Certainly, there is no hint of ‘masterful persuasion’ with this woman, with whom he is besotted from the moment of the kiss, and who isn’t a showgirl in his room.
He makes it as a journalist with a little help from her, and the rest of the story is something of a damp squib after the strong chapters about poverty in the lodging house, the dark comedy of the horror of his former acquaintances over his metamorphases into a street orator, and the terrible sights of the Spanish Civil War.
On the whole, this book is well worth reading and often strongly written, but the resolution after the climatic scene in the lorry in Spain – where Hendryks’ friend is killed and he in turn shoots dead the man who did it – goes on rather too long. Well, that is always a temptation, and I suppose Monsarrat liked his hero rather more than I did and wanted to show him becoming a successful journalist, marrying and becoming a father.
The historical background is vivid (this was published in 1939). It is not as informative on unemployment and poverty in the 1930’s UK as George Orwell’s journalism, of course, and not intended to be, but an interesting individual perspective.