Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Roger Scruton’s Image of an Old British Colonialist

Mr Chapman taught physics in the upper sixth. He had read natural sciences at Cambridge, and even done research under the great Lord Rutherford, who imparted to him a passion for atomic theory. However, he was not cut out for a university career, having absorbed from his public school — Charterhouse —— the love of adventure and service which was there counted higher in the scheme of things than knowledge. He joined the colonial service, was called up to defend various outposts of the empire against imaginary Germans, and then, after the war, found himself Assistant District Commissioner in Nigeria, responsible for the administration of the Ibo territories.

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Mr Chapman was one of many high-ranking colonial officers who had come home after decolonisation, in search of jobs compatible with their real but fragile self-esteem. Many of them entered the teaching profession, but not all of them could find the post they were seeking in a public school. High Wycombe Royal Grammar School was the next best thing, and Mr Chapman brought to it a personality and an experience that helped to give substance to Mr Tucker’s fantasy of a suburban Eton. This is not to say that they liked each other: Mr Chapman, I learned, despised the headmaster as a snob and a philistine. But for both of them the old ideal was still alive, and in Mr Chapman it achieved a poignant embodiment which all his pupils acknowledged, even if they could not put it into words.

It would be easy to caricature him as the archetypal British imperialist, ‘the sweet, just, boyish master’ of the world described by  Santayana. And it is true, there was something ineffably boyish about him, as he strode about the school with quick, nervous glances, as though hoping for someone to throw a ball at him. He had a deep chest, regular features, a clipped military moustache, and a complexion reddened and hardened by the tropics. His expression was challenging, but with his head held always slightly back from the thing he encountered. He had a slight shortness of breath as though from lungs hampered by exotic diseases, and he spoke with a moist public—school accent, never wasting words and often pausing to look around him as the silence resurged. In everything he seemed to betray those solitary habits of which it is impossible for the true colonist to divest himself, even after he has settled again in the country which he had mythologised as ‘home’ and which invariably disappoints him with its brash indifference to the sacrifice he has made on its behalf.

In time, however — and it took time to know Mr Chapman — the old imperialist caricature seemed less and less appropriate. My first inkling of this came when I stayed behind after a lesson, to express my puzzlement over something in our physics book. He seemed greatly relieved at my fumbling remarks, and told me that the A—level curriculum was in his view completely absurd, that he found himself compelled to teach physics entirely the wrong way round, and that mathematics and differential equations should come first. He also recommended a book — Tolansky’s Atomic Physics — which he promised to lend to me if I took special care of it. Astonished by these confidences I retreated in confusion. But the next day he waylaid me in the ‘quad’, as our playground was pretentiously called, and placed the book in my hand. It was my first encounter with systematic science, and I was impressed by it. Most of all I appreciated the book’s tone: not talking down like a school textbook or cheating its way to conclusions that it did not prove, but examining the truth impartially, as though conversing with an equal. ll was one of the virtues of the English educational system that the higher forms of learning could from time to time descend upon the lower and remove the dross of condescension.

When I returned the book, Mr Chapman informed me that he had invited some of the senior boys to his house for dinner, and that he would like me, although still a junior, to be one of the party. By ‘dinner’ he meant the evening meal, which we at home called ‘tea’. Later I learned that these contrasting idioms belonged to two different sociolects, and that the relation between them enshrined the entire comedy of the English class system. At the time, however, I was intrigued by the master’s words. The invitation, and the language used to express it, seemed like two expressions of a single fact: Mr Chapman’s loneliness. No one in our school accosted him without sensing this loneliness, and without experiencing a sentiment of involuntary respect, such as you might entertain towards a monk or an explorer who had detached himself from worldly things for the sake of a good that could not be explained in the world’s tainted language, and which you could therefore merely acknowledge in silence.

Mr Chapman lived in a modern block of flats, amid lawns and shrubs, bordered on one side by an elegant Victorian house, and on the other by a busy road. It was a dreary development, wholly characteristic of the new suburban England — a plain brick tower with draughty concrete staircases and metal-framed windows, enjoying generous views over the neighbouring townscape, and also spoiling it. It occurred to me later that Mr Chapman had chosen this place for its anonymity: only this characterless tenement, which could be built anywhere and which would always look like nowhere, suited his spirit, destined as it was to wander without roots in a country which neither acknowledged nor remembered the mission which it had sent him abroad to perform.

The living room consisted of a dining table and a few not very comfortable modern armchairs arranged in front of an electric fire. In the corners stood carved figures of teak and ebony, which poked their grim faces into the unfamiliar air of England with a mute refusal to belong. Tribal masks stared from the white plaster walls, and elephant tusks jousted on the mantelpiece. To Mr Chapman these objects were trophies which would always, in his own eyes, distinguish him. For me, in my juvenile snobbery, they were kitsch. The same was true of the only object which seemed not to belong with them —- a nineteenth-century oil painting of Beethoven, with blazing red-rimmed eyes and greenish skin, chord upon chord knocking inside his leonine skull and threatening to burst out at any moment with a blare of brass and timpani.

Teachers who entertain their pupils to dinner run a great risk of appearing ridiculous, especially if, like Mr Chapman, they have no wife to take charge. But Mr Chapman was not ridiculous as he waited on those four tongue—tied louts at table, serving unfamiliar delicacies like smoked salmon and duck in orange sauce. He treated us as men, and even referred to us as men. Such, I later learned, was the public- school idiom — an idiom fraught with moral and historical significance. It seemed entirely natural that this middle-aged person with ro1led—up shirtsleeves, who went back and forth between kitchen and dining room, pausing every now and then to sip from a tumbler of whisky and soda, should be talking to us of lessons, problems, A- levels and the daftness of an educational system which couldn’t have been daft at all if it provided an opportunity like this one. He told us stories of Lord Rutherford and explained the experiments that led to the splitting of the atom. He introduced us to wine and the vital difference, which none of us had known, between claret and burgundy. He mentioned his days in Africa, and even told us a story or two, full of humour and irony, of his happy times in the jungle, mapping for the first time the territory of the Ibo—speaking tribes. He was not showing off, but simply helping us to understand that the world is larger by far than High Wycombe, and deeper by far than any A-level textbook. And then, after dinner, he sat us down to listen to the gramophone which he had just acquired and of which he was very proud.

Those were the early days of long-playing records, and the Hungarian String Quartet had just issued their complete set of Beethoven. He played the F major Rasumovsley. I was only just beginning to discover music, and was hearing this piece for the first time. But it made a profound impression: the slow movement in particular seemed to crystallise and beautify the loneliness that I sensed in Mr Chapman. He encouraged me to stay after the others had left and, when we were alone, explained how much Beethoven meant to him. He particularly cherished the string quartets —- so serious and religious and thoughtful. I had read books in which music was described in that way; but I had never heard it said. And once again I sensed the vast fund of fertile solitude which made Mr Chapman something more than a man.

After this I would often call on him. I ate his food, drank his whisky and listened to his records — while he moved in the background, reading, marking, washing dishes and persisting, my presence notwithstanding, in his solitary ways. He listened to my troubles, offered kind advice, but about himself was reticent, with the peculiar splenetic reserve that was so often admired in the English. Only one subject would prompt him to hold forth and that was Africa. He had seen his role as ADC in altruistic terms: he was bringing civilisation to the uncharted jungle. The taxes he collected, often in the teeth of rebellious elders, were to be justified by schools, clinics and the necessities of modern life. He had learned the Ibo language, befriended the local chieftains and witch doctors, devoted days and nights to the well—being and advancement of a people whose need for protection evidently pleased him greatly. He had also found himself in hair—raising scrapes, which he related with a calm objectivity as though they had happened to someone else. You sensed his streak of heroism the moment he withdrew from mentioning it.

Although I had been brought up to sneer at the British Empire, I could not sneer at Mr Chapman, for whom the empire was not a commercial enterprise but a moral task, the only reward of which (although this, to him, was sufficient) lay in the satisfaction of doing his duty. If that makes him sound naive, so be it. But his naivety was of the sublime kind that idealises what it touches. The Ibo tribes appeared in his narratives as endowed with a childlike innocence and a touching eagerness to please. They learned and unlearned daily, like children, and, again like children, they visibly grew into manhood under his care. He loved them with the severe just love of a Victorian father. And because he had an enquiring mind he recorded their habits, their gods, their sacred tales and rituals. He let me read what he had written and it made a deep impression on me. I decided to become an anthropologist. The ambition did not last long; nevertheless, Mr Chapman encouraged it and guided my reading. Soon I was familiar with Frazer, Malinovvski, Lévy-Briihl and Radcliffe—Brown,  and often we would discuss the ‘elementary forms of the religious  life’, as Durkheim had described them.

To my astonishment I discovered that Mr Chapman was a Christian. His scientific interest in pagan customs had not tarnished the Anglican vision which dawned on him at Charterhouse, and which had persisted through his sweaty adventures like a cool quiet angel preceding him down jungle paths. I had lost my little faith and not regained it, and I became aware that he disapproved – although without expressing it. Nothing would have prompted him to speak openly of something so intimate as God the Father. Nevertheless, a slight tension arose whenever I applied the methods of comparative anthropology to the rituals and doctrines of the English. For Mr Chapman, I realised, the Church of England was sacred and  untouchable, like England itself. The fact that England had, during his absence, changed beyond recognition, only enhanced its holy ambience in his memory. England for him was no longer a real place, but a consecrated isle in the lake of forgetting, where the God of the English still strode through an imaginary Eden, admiring His works.

And another thing too astonished me. In a rare moment of cofnidence, after an evening of quartets and whisky, Mr Chapman confessed that he was married, with a son at public school – I forget which. Except, he added, that his wife, defeated by the tropics, had left him and successfully petitioned for a divorce; nor did he see his son. In his own eyes, however, he was still married, the vow of marriage being eternal and unbreakable. He made the point with an emphatic sniff, so as to place it beyond discussion. And that was all he ever said about his failed domestic life.

-Roger Scuton, England: An Elegy

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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