Monday, September 19, 2011

Hitchens and Compulsory Garmes

I’ve been reading the melancholy Hitch 22, “A Memoir” by Christopher Hitchens.  On page 48 he writes of Stanford in 1987.  “The impression of first-day-at-school in its grand quads was only enhanced by the effort of my old friend Edward Said with whom I was visiting the campus for a conference, to encourage me to feel more at home.  ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘we’ll go and take cocktail from Ian Watt.’”  I was made additionally nervous by the thought of introduction to this dry, wry, and donnish figure, the world’s expert on Joseph Conrad and author of The Rise of the Novel. . . .”

“Watt . . . was one of the few survivors of The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Burma Railroad, Changi Jail in Singapore, and other Hirohito horrors that I still capitalize in my mind. . . he told me the following tale, which I set down with hope that it captures his memorably laconic tone of voice:

‘Well, we were in a cell that was probably built for six but was holding about sixteen of us.  There wasn’t much food, and we hadn’t been given any water for quite a while.  The heat was absolutely ferocious.  Dysentery had begun to take its toll, which was distinctly disagreeable at such close quarters. . .

‘Added to this unpleasantness, we could hear one of our number being rather badly beaten by the Japanese guards, with rifle-butts it seemed, in their guardroom down the corridor.  At this rather trying moment one of my young subalterns, who’d managed to fall asleep, started screaming and flailing and yelling.  He was shouting: “No, no – please don’t... Not any more, not again, Oh God please.”  Hideous noises like that.  I had to take a snap decision to prevent panic, so I ordered the sergeant to slap him and wake him up.  When he came to, he apologized for being a bore but brokenly confessed that he’d dreamed he was back at Tonbridge.’”

“. . . Watt went on to recall an interview with the other old Asia hand E.M. Forster, in which he’d been asked, as an ‘old boy’ of Tonbridge School, whether he would ever agree to write an article for the school magazine.  ‘Only . . . if it could be against compulsory games.’  The very phrase ‘compulsory games’ had automatic resonance for me, bringing back not merely the memory of freezing soccer and rugby pitches, and of the gloating sadists who infested the changing-rooms that were the aftermath of these pointless contest, but also W. H. Auden’s suggestive line . . .

‘And helpless governors wake

‘To resume their compulsory games. . . ‘

“It was indeed Auden – who had been a master at such a school as well as having been a pupil at one – who had said that the experience had given him an instructive understanding of what it would be like to live under fascism.”

There was a time when I was part of Chuck Colson’s “Prison Fellowship” to the extent that I wrote to a few prisoners.  I discovered myself justifying my ability to relate to their situations by describing my experiences in Marine Corps’ boot camp.  Of course this needed to be treated carefully, at least I thought it did, because at the end of sixteen weeks of Boot Camp I became a Marine, but after they served as many years, perhaps, in Prison, what did they become? 

And again I could relate to these descriptions of Hitchens by my having gone from a condition of virtually unlimited freedom to a Boot Camp in which every waking and sleeping moment was controlled by “gloating sadists.”  

I stood up better than most under the sadistic-like ministrations of my drill instructors, and, I admit, I didn’t understand them at the time.  I thought (to myself) that something more sensible and “logical” would have worked better.  Only later did I see the sense of “Boot Camp.”  But I take it that Auden, Hitchens, and perhaps Watt never saw the sense of Tonbridge (and Leys).  It is like a red badge of courage to have made it through Marine Corps Boot Camp, but what is it like to have made it through Tonbridge which is still going strong and demanding higher entrance fees than any school comparable, if there is one? 

Hitchens attended Leys, but it seems to have had similar “Compulsory Games.”  No doubt Hitchens makes special note of them because as he has told us he hated and was no good at sports of any kind.  Maybe if I was no good at marching, shooting a rifle, and learning the various things necessary to being a Marine I would have hated it as well.

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