A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It is entirely appropriate, as a book fox, that I am also something of a fanboy for Slightly Foxed Editions. Every now and then I read their literary quarterly with wonderful esoteric and interesting articles, but it is their books which have my heart. Being slow on the uptake, I didn’t realise until I was three or four books in that they were all memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies – but since those are all genres I adore, I was sold all the more.
Most of the editions are exquisite little hardbacks, complete with their own ribbon and sold in limited print runs, but their most popular titles reappear as paperbacks, and it is as a paperback that I read Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (who also features in the Slightly Foxed list as the author of a biography about Jan Struther, of Mrs. Miniver fame).
Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School sounds made-up, but it turns out one Mr. Tibbits did decide to leave his delightful name to posterity – although the school has now changed its name to St. Philip’s, and is very much still going, and still (incidentally) resisting educating girls. The school was founded in 1934 by Richard ‘Dick’ Tibbits, and he drove around every morning picking up his few first pupils. It is the pupils – these and others – whom Maxtone Graham sought for her research. These, understandably, got rarer the further back she went – not simply because they were increasingly dead, but because the class sizes were smaller. Indeed, the book opens with Maxtone Graham’s report of speaking to the Earl of Gainsborough, one of the first four pupils, who agrees to meet with Maxtone Graham in the new year. Only, when she calls to check with him a month later… he has died. Such are the perils of firsthand research into the early 20th century.
But Maxtone Graham uses her resources excellently, and the various teachers and headteachers of the school’s history come to life through descriptions of them. Mr. Tibbits is described as being ‘an overgrown schoolboy himself’, but strict and considerably less easy-going after the war than before; his wife is equally stern, and yet the boys of this period don’t seem to have been miserable. Certain things were curiously forbidden; “Gentlemen do not study science.” As Maxtone Graham notes:
Boys’ prep schools have always attracted eccentric teachers. Young, dishevelled men who leave university without having a clue what to do next; fresh-faced railway-map enthusiasts unsuited to a job in the City; retired Army officers with very white legs who wear shorts in winter; blue-stocking women in a vain search for a husband; Catholic converts with a Third in History from Oxford, and so on. “Read Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and you have St. Philip’s in the 1940s and ’50s,” more than one old boy has said to me.
One hopes St. Philip’s was less cruel and surreal – but there are certainly some rather wonderful characters among the teaching staff, from the French teacher Mr. Tregear who wore red cork high heels and (according to an ex-pupil) ‘made Kenneth Williams look like a truck-driver’, to a Polish princess working somebody’s maternity cover. One teacher, awaiting his inheritance, walked out the classroom and quit the moment he received news that he was suddenly rich. Even the headteachers who came after Mr. Tibbits seem equally intriguing to read about; Mr. Atkinson and his hatred of the metric system, the number 7 with a line through it, and overwhelming need for the school to win sports, and Harry Biggs-Davison who arrived as a 7-year-old in 1963 and is the headteacher today.
So, why is it interesting to read about a school one has not intended, and people one has never met, and whose only fame is in being teachers of varying abilities and eccentricities? For, whatever its alumni may believe, there is nothing intrinsically special about the school that isn’t replicated, in some form, in schools everywhere. Other schools may not have the same money or oddities, but each provides the formative years for its pupils, who will forever look back, fondly or otherwise (as the child of an ex-teacher who taught primary school age children, I find it amusing that there must be hundreds of adults who will never forget my mother’s maiden name). Well, I think Maxtone Graham could have made a book about any school fascinating and adorable. She has, an A.N. Wilson points out in his preface, the ‘passionate nosiness of the novelist’. It is not simply nosiness, though, but a charming ability to pass that nosiness onto her readers; like so many of the authors republished by Slightly Foxed, she casts enchantment over essentially ordinary (albeit privileged) lives.
The only sections which made me uncomfortable were the covert – and, occasionally, pretty much overt – suggestions that a private education is really the only sort of education worth having, and (if one is being honest) that only St Philip’s School is worth attending. For this particular reader, the idea of being educated at an all-boys school is horrendous enough to make the prospect inevitably unappealing, and as a state comprehensive boy myself, don’t consider those schools beyond the pale. But, all things considered, I think I prefer Maxtone Graham’s slightly insane partisanship (claiming that mothers consider having more children, just to prolong their connection with the school – but what if they are cursed with girls, one wonders wryly) to a more dispassionate record, or to the tedium of an classist or anti-Catholic diatribe.
If you’ve yet to have the pleasure of a Slightly Foxed book, you can start pretty much anywhere. Of those I’ve read, I think perhaps Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blue Remembered Hills is my favourite, or Dodie Smith’s Look Back With Love – but they have yet to put a foot wrong. Treat yourself, and take a step back into another world – this fox was certainly enchanted.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham: Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School. London: Slightly Foxed, 2011 (Paperback). 200pp.