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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter V — College Days

page 49

Chapter V
College Days

At the conclusion of my pupil-teacher course my long-cherished ambition was attained. In virtue of my successes at the annual examinations I was awarded a bursary of £50 a year for two years, and proceeded to Christchurch, there to acquire the art and science of education at the Teachers' Training College.

The conditions of my bursary required me to attend about twenty hours a week at the Training College and four or five at the School of Art. Most of this time I regarded as wasted, my one aim being to attend the university classes; but the problem was how to get out of it. As regards the School of Art, the difficulty was soon solved, for half-way through the first term I was expelled for "insubordinate conduct."

At the Training College the difficulty was all but solved in a similar manner, for there too I was sentenced to expulsion; but as this meant the forfeiture of my bursary and the end of my ambitions, I made my submission, apologised as gracefully as I could, and was, after some trouble, reinstated. But the School of Art I got out of for good and all, and that institution saw me no more. Lest I produce the impression of being incorrigible, let page 50me hasten to explain that my offence was nothing more serious than publicly lampooning the ogre who taught mathematics—"mathemawtics," he called it. He was an utterly stupid man, and he was frequently tipsy even on duty. He richly deserved all the contempt that could be poured upon him. On the other hand I equally deserved the sentence of expulsion, not for the insult conveyed by the lampoon, but for its poor wit.

After a time, in spite of my indiscretions, I won my way into the good graces of the authorities, and was exempted from all attendances at the Training College except an hour a day for practical teaching. This set me free for university work.

The University of New Zealand is merely an examining body. Under Royal Charter it grants degrees in a number of faculties, theology always excepted. In my day, and for many years thereafter, all examinations were conducted by examiners resident in the United Kingdom—a system, it was felt, that enhanced the value of degrees granted by a young University in a far-distant Colony. But occasionally it led to inconvenience and delay, or worse. One year when I had sat for a law examination and my papers were on their way to Oxford to be examined by Professor Hunter, the well-known writer on Roman Law, the mail-steamer Mataura was wrecked in the Straits of Magellan, and the collective wisdom of some three hundred New Zealand students went to the bottom of the ocean, there, no doubt, to "suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange."

Affiliated to the University are four Colleges, one page 51each in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland, where the subjects in which the University grants degrees are taught by staffs of Professors, all of whom in those days were also drawn from the Universities of the United Kingdom.

During my first year in Christchurch I attended several classes at the College as an "extra-mural" student—in other words, as one who was, and felt he was, a rank outsider; but having matriculated with the aid of a first-class "coach," I entered in the following year as a full-fledged undergraduate. The College was then entering upon the second decade of its history. Two buildings had been erected, one containing lecture-rooms, the other a noble hall. It was characteristic of the pioneers of learning in Canterbury that thus early in the history of the College they built a hall. Chemical and physical laboratories and additional lecturerooms were urgently needed. But the Governors, many of them English public-school men, and several of them graduates of English Universities, had ideals that soared beyond the mere utilities of the moment. Only thirty years had passed since the "Canterbury Pilgrims" had founded the settlement which they hoped to make, in the fine phrase of the Times, "a slice of England out and out from top to bottom." A university college, with a hall not unworthy of English traditions, and with beautiful buildings grouped round a "quad"—this they deemed a necessary part of the "slice." To-day the College has its "quad" with noble and dignified buildings in grey stone, and cloisters and arcades surrounding it, waiting only for the mellowing effects of Time and ivy to complete their beauty. In my page 52day only two sides of the College site had any buildings erected on them; but a "quad" it would one day be, and "quad" it was to us and so was called by us in affectionate anticipation of the future.

I suppose our efforts, mere handful of graduates and undergraduates as we were, to create a university atmosphere were rather absurd; but we at least were deeply in earnest about it all. In brandnew mortar-boards and brand-new gowns we sat in lecture-rooms that still smelt of paint and flattered ourselves we were already creating traditions in a College that was founded yesterday in a city built the day before. We had our Virgilian motto to live up to, "Ergo tua rura manebunt," and the good broad acres of endowments to which it referred to justify great hopes for its future. We had already formed a union—the "Dialectic Society," we called it; we had our boating on the waters of the Avon, classic-named; there were shady walks among the willows on its banks where we sauntered two and two, while we lovingly coloured our meerschaum pipes, and dreamed our dreams, and talked of Cicero "On Friendship." We even had our "Jowett breakfasts" on Sundays at the hospitable board of John Macmillan Brown, Professor of Languages and History, and some time of Balliol College, Oxford.

Of him, by the way, many good stories were current, most of them relating to the varied methods he employed to "scarify," as he called it, an idle student. One only I recall: There was in his elementary Latin class a student with a ruddy complexion and a huge nose of a most bibulous strawberry appearance. He was called on to trans-page 53late into Latin a passage beginning "He marched his army into Gaul." Unprepared as usual, he began, with short-lived confidence: "He, hic," and paused thoughtfully. "Hic"—and he scratched his head. "Hic" once more, and then from the Professor in his most dulcet tones, "Mr.——, am I to take that as a pronoun or an interjection?" But the innuendo was undeserved: the unfortunate man was an incorrigible teetotaller.

Life as an undergraduate was much more interesting and varied than life as a pupil-teacher had been, but it was not less strenuous. After my bursary ran out I was once more thrown upon my own resources. In vacation I got jobs as "relieving teacher" in Board schools. In term-time I made carbon copies of my notes of lectures and sold these to extra-murals in the country whom I "coached" by correspondence. When I had established myself somewhat by successes in the College examinations, I started night-classes in Latin, a little better equipped for the responsibility, I hope, than in my night-school days in Napier. Occasionally in the long vacation one was so lucky as to get an engagement as "bear-leader" to sons of the wealthy lower orders, of whom there were already many in our young community.

I had the very great pleasure on one occasion of punishing a "profiteer," though that felicitous term had not then been invented. He wanted to send his son to Oxford, of all places, and to that end wished him to matriculate in New Zealand first. So he took him away from school a month before the date of the examination and engaged me to "cram" him, after the manner of a Strasburg page 54goose. I forget how many hours I was to devote to the process during the month, but I remember that my fee "scaled out" at ten guineas, and that was the sum I had made up my mind to charge. The day before I was to begin the course the father sent for me. He kept a racing stable and wanted, I suppose, to give me his final "riding orders," much as he did to his trainers and jockeys, and much in the same tone. He informed me, quite unnecessarily, that he had not been to Oxford himself; he had "made his pile" without the help from any "College fal-lals"; he didn't "hold much with these notions"; but his wife thought "Oxford would give the boy tone." Women were like that. He had heard I was very successful in "schooling youngsters over the hurdles," and was prepared to "come down handsome" if I succeeded with his boy. I explained, coldly, that my fees were quite independent of results. "Well, I look to you to do your best, young feller; and, anyhow, what is your fee?" The "young feller" very nearly terminated the interview; I was on the point of telling him to go to——, but remembered in time that I was in his own house, that after all it was the son, not the father, I was employed to "cram," and—well, I could do with the money. I had a brilliant inspiration: "Thirty guineas," I rapped out, and so fined the purse-proud vulgarian twenty guineas for his insolent manners. The son did get to Oxford somehow, but was sent down at the end of his first year for "drink and complications."

In one of my jobs as "relieving teacher" I had a piece of good luck. I had been engaged to take charge of the District School at a town in the page 55Seventy-mile Bush for a period of six weeks while the master was on sick-leave. I was paid £5 a week, but as I had to pay £2 a week for board at the local hotel there was not a great deal in it. After the first week measles broke out, and the school was closed. I drew my £5 a week for the rest of the term of my employment while living at home with my people and reading hard for the John Tinline Scholarship in English Literature, which I was so fortunate as to win. I was by this time earning such good money as a tutor that I was able to devote the whole proceeds of the scholarship to paying the deposit on a cottage I bought for my parents on the instalment plan and to pay off the balance in the two following years.

Life at College meant much hard work and very little play for most of us; but on Saturday nights we relaxed—usually at the "Will o' the Wisp," an undergraduates' club, where we drank small-beer and smoked meerschaum pipes. We rented a room from a popular tailor in the town, and he used to call in person on club evenings to collect his rent. He had an excellent basso voice, and we always insisted on his singing us a song by way of "discount" for prompt payment of our rent. It was either "Will o' the Wisp," in honour of the name of our Club, or "The Yeoman's Wedding." Whatever it was, it was always vociferously encored; and by this means we made our way into—and on to— the tailor's good books, and remained "on them," some of us, for an unconscionable time. But I don't think he lost money by any of us in the long run.

If I can claim to have contributed in any way to page 56the creation of that university atmosphere we were all striving for, it was on the social side, and particularly in connection with fostering university theatricals.

Already in my first extra-mural year some enthusiasts produced on a miniature stage Goldsmith's comedy "She Stoops to Conquer." I witnessed that performance, and for me at least the glamour of that night will never fade. A boy of seventeen, not yet matriculated, until that night my one ambition had been to become that exalted being, a Bachelor of Arts, Henceforth such pedantries seemed of secondary importance. In my day-dreams gown and trencher yielded place to sock and buskin; I too would be a College amateur and strut it behind the footlights, with the limelight turned full on.

My opportunity soon came. In my freshman's year I made my debut on the stage of the College Hall in some scenes from Fielding's "Mock Doctor," in a female part. For twenty years the lure of the footlights held me till I made my final bow—"positively his last appearance"—in Hare's rôle of Sir Peter Lund in "A Fool's Paradise."

From then on I took the initiative in producing at least one play a year. I am much afraid that in my vanity the play was frequently selected less for its general suitability than for the fact that it contained a part I particularly wanted to act. On this principle, for example, I produced Sheridan's "Rivals" because I saw "fat" for myself in the part of Bob Acres. In my zeal for realism I so bedaubed myself with white grease-paint in the page 57duel scene, to indicate the fear I was not artist enough to portray without it, that when I fainted in the arms of Sir Lucius O'Trigger I left a white profile clearly outlined on the breast of his black velvet coat as an indelible proof of my emotion. The laughter of the audience, rising from a simmer to a roar as they gradually saw what had happened, did not add to the histrionic triumph I had hoped to achieve.

The following year we produced a novel experiment in comedy, "Aristophanes Up-to-date," or "The New Learning," a clever adaptation in English of Aristophanes' "Clouds." The book was the work of the Professor of Classics, F. W. Haslam, a scholar and a wit. He had been at one time a master at Westward Ho! School, where he had Rudyard Kipling among his pupils, and he was supposed to have been the original of King, the classical master in "Stalky & Co." The satire of the Greek comedy was cleverly diverted into modern channels and directed with much point upon latter-day foibles.

In my final year our soaring ambition o'erleapt itself. We had the temerity to produce Shakespeare; and that, not on the modest stage of the College Hall, but at the leading theatre in the town. And Shakespeare, as so often, spelt ruin from the financial point of view. The main part of the "bill" consisted in the Malvolio scenes from "Twelfth Night." As lovers of that delightful comedy have no doubt noted, it is possible to present the Malvolio-Olivia plot severed from the Viola-Orsino plot as an independent play. The adaptation of the text was the work of H. F. Haast, page 58and Ms acting and singing in the part of Feste was the outstanding success of the production.

It was Charles Lamb's essay "On Some of the Old Actors" that fired me with the ambition to play Malvolio. My performance was at least an honest attempt to carry out Bensley's conception of the part as described in the essay: to avoid presenting him as either buffoon or contemptible in the accepted tradition of the modern stage, and to keep before my mind throughout Elia's description of him: "He becomes comic by accident. He is cold, austere, repelling; but dignified, consistent, and, for what appears, rather of an over-stretched morality…. His bearing is lofty, a little above his station, but probably not much above his deserts…. He looked, spoke, and moved like an old Castilian."

It has always seemed to me that among all the Shakespeare commentators I have ever read, from Gervinus, the worst, to George Brandes, the best of them, there is nowhere to be found a more just and discriminating description of any of Shakespeare's characters than is here contained.

How far achievement must have fallen short of ambition in thus producing Shakespeare's light-hearted comedy! One blushes in the dark when he recalls the temerity of youth; but we all thought the attempt worth while, and in the audience, I do not doubt, were many who would much rather see university students fail lamentably in "Hamlet" than succeed hilariously in "Hot Codlins."

The house was packed; but we had spent half as much again on scenery and accessories as we could possibly take at the doors; and as the stage-struck enthusiasts who had promoted the perfor- page 59mance were personally responsible for the deficit, we sadly determined for the future to leave the field of legitimate drama for others to cultivate.

Apart from the plays mentioned, I played at various times a number of other parts: Prosper Couramont in Sardou's three-act comedy "A Scrap of Paper"; Pygmalion in W. S. Gilbert's "Pygmalion and Galatea"; Henry Spreadbrow in the same author's "Sweethearts"; Sir Harcourt Courtley in "London Assurance"; and Sir Peter Lund, as already stated, in "A Fool's Paradise."

Whatever the audience "in front" thought of my "Malvolio," an incident occurred at the final rehearsal which won me the admiration of the audience "behind," the most critical of all critics— the stage hands. For amateurs, as a rule, stage hands have only unmitigated contempt. The most uninspiring "blue chin," because he is a "pro," far surpasses, in their opinion, the most gifted of amateurs. But of me two of them at least made an exception. In the course of the last act, where Malvolio, behind the bars of his prison, protests his sanity to Sir Topas and the Fool—an exceedingly trying scene to play—Alf, the chief scene-shifter, and George, the limelight operator, were holding loud-voiced converse in the wings behind me, My protests were unheeded; the more peremptory my demands for silence the louder grew their voices; so I decided to address them in their own language. Looking carefully round to see that no one else was within earshot, at a pause in the action when I was "off" for a moment, I bade them shut their "blank, double-dash, asterisk, morse-code mouths," or I would "blank, more dash, three asterisks, page 60shut them for them." Dumbfounded and, I think, not a little envious of my vocabulary—for I had once spent a vacation in a mining-camp on the West Coast—they spoke not another word. After the performance 1 overheard them through the half-open door of my dressing-room—the "star" dressing-room, you may be sure:

"Wot d'yer think of that chap Allpeers, Alf?" asked George.

"Think of 'im!" answered Alf. "My cripes! 'E's no blitherin' hamatoor: 'e's a b——y hactor! "

And I never met either of them after that, whether on the stage or off, but he doffed his cap to me. Had I been Henry Irving himself, they could not have treated me with greater deference.

But the real business of life at Canterbury College was work—earnest, strenuous, sustained work. It was no place for sons of the idle rich—if indeed any New Zealanders at that time merited the description —or for their daughters either, for that matter; for, be it remembered, the University of New Zealand was the first within the British Empire to confer degrees upon women. Every student was there for the specific purpose of qualifying in some profession or other, and to that end of obtaining a degree.

For myself I took the arts course and read for honours in the "Languages and Literature" group (Latin and English, including Anglo-Saxon and Old English). As I had only attained fluency in English speech a few years before, and as my Latin, when I came up, was in a parlous state, my choice of subjects for Honours was regarded by my friends as foolhardy. But mathematics or science was out page 61of the question for me, and philosophy and economics did not interest me; I therefore had really no choice. To our cynical and sarcastic Professor of Classics it was an unspeakable crime for a student who had matriculated at seventeen by the skin of his teeth to attempt to get a first-class in Latin at twenty-one, and if he succeeded in the attempt so much greater the crime. But I am glad to think that he ultimately forgave me, even though I committed the major offence. I realise that to a man of his fastidious scholarship, the solecisms and false quantities of my first, and even of my second, year must have been offensive to his very soul. But once a student "caught his eye" he spared no pains to lick him into some semblance of polished scholarship. The love for the best things in the literature of Rome, the lyrics of Catullus, for example the appreciation of literary values which he sought to impart —this is a treasure some of us at least would not exchange for all the lore of all the pundits of all the sciences put together.1

As for the Professor of English, J. M. Brown (now Chancellor of the New Zealand University), he it was who more than any other shaped and moulded the activities of the College in its first years. He systematised the teaching of English, and made it the most popular subject in the whole page 62curriculum. He will always be remembered as the true founder and "father" of Canterbury College.

The only criticism to which the methods of instruction in vogue in our day were open is one that would probably apply with equal force to most university teaching at that period. With true academic conservatism modern professors still followed mediæval monks—the learned friars who "lectured" at the Universities of Oxford and Paris in days when printed books were not, and the spoken word was the only way of transmitting learning. Much, too, of the teaching was secondhand. We were set to study "books about books" that often left us no time to read the books them-selves. English classics—the plays of Shakespeare, Spenser's "Faerie Queene," even Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution"—we read in "Clarendon Press" editions, one part text and two parts annotation. I remember once getting top marks in a paper on the second book of the "Faerie Queene," I simply had to get top marks because a £20 "exhibition" depended on it. I sat up the whole of the night before the examination cramming up the notes and glossary. I am ashamed to say that to this day 1 have never found either time or inclination to read the text, and I am still entirely ignorant of the adventures of Sir Guyon; but after all, that was not the fault of the system, but my own fault for so grossly abusing it.

As for our Latin authors, there it was not much better. We did indeed have to read the text in order to be able to translate it—though I read my Tacitus, I remember, with the aid of Bohn's crib. By the time we had finished a-passage, its beauty page 63and significance were often buried in our brains beneath an undigested mass of "annotated" lumber. Conington's "Notes" to the Æneid, Wilkins and Palmer's "Notes" to Horace's "Epistles and Satires," made exacting demands upon our time and sent us to bed in the small hours of the morning, our heads reeling with textual and grammatical comments, till we dreamed—in the witty words of one of my fellow-students—that we were walking down the Appian Way arm-in-arm, not with Horace and Virgil, but with Ut and the Subjunctive!

Some day, perhaps, all "annotated editions" will be placed on the Index Expurgatorius and sternl? banished from the Halls of Learning.

The great name of Bohn—beneficent friend of hard-driven youth—reminds me that we had a debate once at the "Will o' the Wisp" Club on the engrossing topic of "Bohn's Translations versus Bass's Beer." I spoke, I remember, on the winning side, in favour of Bohn's Translations, for "cribs" were a clandestine necessity we could not do without, while beer was a glorious luxury we could seldom afford.

The reference above to "Clarendon Press" editions reminds me of an extraordinary coincidence I experienced some years ago. I am fully aware that of all bores the worst is he who persists in recounting his wonderful experiences of what he calls in good newspaperese "the long arm of coincidence." But this one was really so remarkable that the reader, I hope, will bear with the telling, or, if not—well, one merit of this kind of book is that you can so easily "skip."

page 64

In 1889 I sold in a Christchurch auction-room two sacks full of old books, mostly textbooks. They included a copy of Shakespeare's "King Lear," edited by Clark and Wright and published in the familiar brown cardboard edition of the Clarendon Press. I received, I remember, £5 for the contents of the two sacks.

A quarter of a century later I was established in Christchurch as a barrister and solicitor. In the building adjoining the offices I occupied a teacher of singing and elocution, Mr. Farquhar Young, had his studio. So close a neighbour was he that, truth to say, my clerks occasionally found his stentorian bass distracting. He happened to be on a visit to London when the Great War broke out, and came back early in the following year, On his return he called on me and informed me he had brought me a present from London, As we were not in the habit of exchanging presents, I suppose I looked surprised, "You need not be embarrassed," said my friend; "I only paid ninepence for it," and thereupon he handed me my "King Lear." He had seen it on the stall of a second-hand book-dealer somewhere in London marked "9d." and bought it. When he got home to his lodgings he found written across the fly-leaf "O. T. J, Alpers, Canterbury College, 1887." Below that is now also written this account of the book's travels and how after twenty-five years it came back into my possession.

What are the odds against such a happening? I leave the answer to any mathematician gifted with imagination.

I was able to complete my course at the College page 65largely owing to the kindness of Professor J. M. Brown in recommending pupils to me and procuring me vacation jobs. At its conclusion he appointed me his assistant, and for three years I helped him in the work of his chair. In the course of the third year he left on a visit to England and I became his locum tenens—or, as a sarcastic undergraduate described me in one of the "Diploma Day Songs," for the year:

Professor Embryonic
Of wisdom most Platonic.

That was an annus mirabilis in the history of the College, not, be it understood, because of my temporary tenancy of the Chair of English, but because of the interesting group of men who attended the English classes. They included half a dozen law students, all of whom have made their mark at the Bar, and one of whom is the present Attorney-General for the Dominion, the Hon. F. J. Rolleston; a group of "medicals" who later won distinction in London and Edinburgh; and Sir Apirana Turupu Ngata, afterwards Minister for Native Affairs, the first member of the Maori race to take a University degree. They included also Mrs. W. P. Reeves, a leader in that little group of intellectual women who conferred distinction upon the "Women's Movement" in the early days of our University life, and whose own literary achievements are not to be forgotten merely because her husband is the author of the best book so far written about New Zealand by a New Zealander. These alone would have made any year a good year. But besides these there were two men whom the page 66College still proudly regards as its most distinguished graduates. One was Sir William Marris, Governor of the United Provinces in India. When the following year he "topped" the Indian Civil Service Examination by a lead of nearly a thousand marks—a feat till then at least unprecedented—and when some years later he published his translations into graceful verse of the Odes of Horace and the lyrics of Catullus, I basked mildly in his reflected glory.

The other was Sir Ernest Rutherford, O.M., some time President of the Royal Society, and at present in charge of the famous Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the most distinguished scientist of the day. On his recent visit to New Zealand I told him I proposed to have inscribed on my tombstone the simple legend: "Among his pupils were Sir Ernest Rutherford and Sir William Marris." But he was so ungracious as to remind me that I had not taught him science. Yet in the days of my night-school in Napier I think I would not have hesitated to attempt it; and in any case I would have him know that in my freshman's year at Canterbury College I sat for Honours in Physics, and the Professor awarded me Third Class for the best of all reasons—there was no Fourth.

1 An interesting tribute to the soundness of the classical side at Canterbury College is the fact that at one time both the Professor of Classics at the University of Leeds (Professor Benjamin Connal) and his assistant (Professor Leo Greenwood) were graduates of Canterbury College, while at the time of writing this note the present incumbent of the Chair at Christchurch (Professor Hugh Stewart) has accepted appointment as Professor of Latin in the same University.