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Experiment 10

A Course in Survival–

A Course in Survival

It is 10 o'clock, Armistice Day, 1937. I am outside the sports locker rooms.

"There will be a one-minute silence. The school will stand to attention. The band will play 'God Save the King'."

The Headmaster had given this out at morning assembly with the gravity of a top diplomat telling the Christmas Islanders about the schedule for the next atomic explosion. Then he stalked off to the staffroom to go over the campaign with the rest of the top brass.

This school is a barracks where we rehearse a crude, quasi-military comic opera round the school band, the cadet corps, and the doctrine of keenness. At the blast of a prefect's whistle, hundreds of louts in short pants and page 44flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up to a regulation height of one inch above the elbow, scramble to key positions and fall-in by platoons. To trumpet and drum, and the animal-farm shrieks of a swarm of n.c.o.'s, they march into company echelons and do physical drill, sometimes to music from a wireless amplifier hooked up to the school gramophone. It plays "The Skater's Waltz". The n.c.o.'s examine us critically about the head, arms, hands and feet before herding us on to the battalion parade ground.

There, by a swift manipulation of masks, the masters appear in blustering khaki as majors, captains and lieutenants. The battalion sergeant-major is a barrel-bellied Boer War veteran on the permanent army staff who has advanced from the local drill hall on a khaki-painted Boer war bicycle. He calls for markers. We shamble through the obsolete rigmarole of the British Army Manual of Elementary Drill. It is a ritual derived from tactics which no doubt were successful at Waterloo, but which are going to be demonstrated before long to us uneasy cannon fodder as hopelessly inadequate to withstand the Panzer onrushes, the Stuka attacks and the blitzkrieg assaults–onslaughts which, had we but known it, the wily Hun was at that very moment devising for our further education.

But today the school band pumps and dribbles reassuringly through the Invercargill March, the right hand guides spring rapidly to attention with a clockwork click of their shining heels, the battalion falls in, numbers off, forms fours, open-order marches, and struts obediently to the commands of Imperial Authority. The officers take post at their respective company stations, and the Headmaster, a tight, Napoleonic, beribboned figure, complete with spurs and a cavalry sword, confers with his adjutant. Ten o'clock strikes. Sad whistles wail from the boilers of both the school heating system and a nearby brewery. The Head snaps the battalion to attention. The officers salute. The band wheezes into the National Anthem. The Head clanks his sword up into the general salute. All are transfixed in a respectful tableau before that shining symbol of authority and tradition. Only a few cripples propped up on their crutches outside one of the classrooms, and a scat-page 45tering of strays who had been temporarily left out of battle on account of illness are exempt.

I am one of these. I look at the Head. He is glaring behind his sword. I think of Armistice Day, Anzac Day, League of Nations Day, May Day, Empire Day, Christmas Day and Mothers' Day. I can see what's wrong with this parade. It isn't so much that it's an attempt to turn Armistice Day, and whatever it might stand for, into a kind of Empire loyalty demonstration–I don't object to that–it's simply that the Head isn't doing it properly.

"The fool," I think. "He doesn't know anything about it."

This is true. The Head got a commission in peacetime and has never seen a shot fired, let alone a cavalry charge. The only people on the staff who perhaps have, are keeping very quiet about it. When they turn up on these parades they always stand morosely in what I am one day to realise are attitudes of doubt and suppressed irritation.

"Anyway," I tell myself, "I'm not a soldier; why should I have to stand to attention?" So I don't. I lounge against the locker room door with my hands in my pockets. This is conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. It is defiance, insurrection–a questioning of the entire Anglo Saxon tradition of obedience to the tribal mores that looms behind the brass band and the military rituals.

The Head sees me out of the corner of his eye. I get a caning.

"You used to be such a keen young fellow," he says. "But you've got very slack lately, very slack. It won't do."

He is quite right. During my first year at this school I build up an impressive reputation for my keenness. I fling myself into all the compulsory sports parades. I badger the masters in charge of the junior grades for sports equipment with which to play extra games on unscheduled occasions. I swot up books on rugby and on athletics and I go for training runs with the Third Fifteen. Later on I am to realise this might have been the path to a brilliant future–a good sporting record at school, a steady job with page 46an oil company or a stock and station agency, a commission when the war breaks out, and a responsible post (preferably somewhere behind the lines), promotion to managerial rank on return to the office, perhaps a few seasons as a rugby selector ("It's a pity about the war, he'd have been an All Black if he could have kept going"), membership of the right clubs, a few lucrative directorships, maybe appointment to this or that advisory board or administrative tribunal. Anything could have been possible. But instead I am corrupted by Science and Technology.

In these simple days people still believe in Science. Sometimes they tut-tut about the likelihood of poison gas being used in warfare again, or have occasional qualms about dropping explosives on unarmed civilians; but nobody is obliged to worry about the possibility of blowing up whole cities and laying waste whole continents. People think Science can be coaxed along so that progress and happiness will be almost as automatic as the notion of social security which Michael Joseph Savage, Uncle Scrim and a few other howling revolutionaries are scheming to establish in New Zealand.

I read books on economics, and on scientific method, and I join the Science Club. No more training runs and extended football practices. In between manufacturing home-made explosives and experimenting with an illegal radio transmitter which some of us are constructing in a corner of the school boiler room, we wonder why political science can't be made into a more exact discipline and why everyone is kicking up such a fuss about the depression.

Anyone who is at school during the thirties can't help knowing all about the depression. If your parents don't have some money you probably never get to a secondary school, but if you do, you find yourself trying to matriculate in three years so that you can compete for a job as an office boy, a bank clerk, or if you are extremely talented and lucky, as a cadet in the Civil Service. If you get as far as a university it is axiomatic that you are the New Zealand equivalent of a gentleman. This was soon to be no longer the case, but in the thirties, whatever the physical hardships and moral anxieties, one certainly knows one's page 47social status. The example of the next door neighbour being charged with theft for stealing firewood from the wharf, the people across the road going bankrupt and having to sell their home, the schoolmate's father who commits suicide when his business fails, and the swaggers who are always turning up at our place looking for feeds, or just being found asleep under the big macrocarpa hedge, enable you to sort your position out very accurately in terms of pounds, shillings, pence, meals and beds.

There are a few sons of the rural aristocracy, as well as some boys from well-to-do industrial, upper-middle-class families at this microcosm, but most of us are from lower, more insecure levels and we know it. We have arguments about Socialism, Fascism and Communism at the Science Club, and we concern ourselves with the possibility that the mild little band of opportunists who constitute the first Labour Government should institute what the newspapers are calling the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat". A club meeting ends in a fight when a faction of farmers' sons rises in revolt during a debate on "Should New Zealand Be Turned into a Collective Farm?"

It is suggested that depressions could be prevented if the Government took over agriculture. The peasantry might resist, but they could be disciplined. That starts the fight.

The Head stops me in the corridor next day and says the club had better limit itself to pure science and keep off politics: parents have been complaining about the damage done to their children by the farmers' party. These farmers' champions are hefty creatures–one of them has the distinction of being the best belcher in the school. He can reverberate his way through a whole stanza of the National Anthem, but in no disrespectful way; he is quite capable of vigorously defending tradition and the status quo when what he feels to be his real interests or his personal dignity are threatened.

The Head gives me another lecture on keenness and says it would be better for me if I concentrated on sport instead of setting myself up as a political agitator. Now in these days, Headmasters are still important people. They page 48have not been reduced by the growing power of the Education Department to mere administrative dummies, carrying out the instructions of the central bureaucracy in Wellington, being polite to parents, nice to the staff, and appearing as benign, apologetic father figures to the pupils in the institutions. Headmasters still have power. They set themselves up as authorities. They introduce all sorts of crackpot systems into their schools, they thunder out moral instruction and make ex cathedra statements on formal occasions. One tyrant even turns his breakfast table into a forum for philosophical discourse, and when he runs out of his own platitudes he has his children recite passages from Shakespeare, the New Zealand equivalent of Greek. All these old Gradgrinds are guardians of the national well-being, manipulators of its future collective mind. Few actually see themselves as teachers, however, and it is not till years later I am to realise that the only thing you can possibly get from a New Zealand school, apart from a rather patchy formal education, depending on what crank happens to be influencing the syllabus at the time, is a certain amount of training for survival in the adult arena. Not training in theoretical tactics either, but training in ordinary commercial hand-to-hand fighting, using boots, claws, broken bottles, biting, gouging and verbal dexterity as well. No holds barred. The worse the school–that is to say, the more confused, brutal, tyrannical, cynical and materialistic the regime–the more can this be seen by a child of average sensibility to resemble the adult world outside, and in consequence, the more useful preparation it offers for the ordeal that awaits him.

So I ask myself questions. What possible relevance could the myth of team spirit have in a society which can't find enough useful work for everyone to do, and which tolerates fear and distress in God's Own Country, to say nothing of racial hatred and political oppression in Europe? It occurs to me that the Head is in the position of a king in a feudal state. But he is a bad king. Instead of warning his subjects about the Black Plague and the difficult things they will have to do to deal with it, he is telling them fairy stories. Anyone can see that the Headmaster's sword-rattling is no answer to the blitzkrieg methods which page 49have been used experimentally in the Spanish Civil War, or, for that matter, even the terrific fire power of the infantry in the concluding stages of World War I. It is not even any use as a symbolic evocation of force and intelligence, because it is an evasion of reality. The most that such leadership can do is to send us trampling heroically into another Gallipoli or another Passchaendale. I can see that in this school, as perhaps in the world outside, it is necessary to resist in order to survive. Fortunately there are opportunities for guerrilla fighting.

I am ultimately to find that the impressive thing about New Zealand lies in its ability to produce, at any given moment, an impressive assortment of heretics, cranks and dissenters as well as the usual clamour of uncertainty, selfishness, panic and intrigue from the main body of citizenry. Like the larger world outside, this school has its mystique. On the one hand there are the official, invalid, discredited, inadequate myths: on the other there is the range of uncertain, imaginative, individual possibilities. Like all resourceful institutions this one has its officially sponsored subversives. One of them is an eccentric art master who fights the prevailing materialism by embracing it. In order to arouse glimmerings of interest in the reluctant prisoners before him, he is forced to talk about how Cellini actually made his big bronze castings, how Michaelangelo mixed his paints and how sculptors grappled with their blocks of marble. If we can't grasp the form of the artifact we can at least investigate the components of it. Another rugged individualist is always scurrying around the Alps on mountaineering expeditions. This makes him fitter than anyone else on the staff and enables him to referee football matches and coach the First Fifteen by vigorously intervening in the scrum himself with a curse and a thump here, and a stimulating cuff there. It also enables him to talk condescendingly about football as if it were, after all, only a game for sody pops who get puffed after running about for an hour or so, on flat ground too.

And there are dancing classes. You go to these if your parents have the money for the fees. If you are lucky and cunning you dance with the Headmaster's page 50daughter–a voluptuous redhead of 17, filling in time at home until she goes on a physical education course. She is helping the regular dancing mistress–a more mature and disillusioned specimen from among the staff wives–to introduce us to genteel social behaviour and the delights of the dance. I track the redhead to the local skating rink on afternoons when I should be at compulsory sports. She is very friendly.

Every few weeks you are herded into the school hall and mustered into the Gay Gordons by the scowling staff. Girls are laid on from a nearby private school. All goes well until the secretary of the Science Club flogs a bottle of absolute alcohol from the chemistry laboratory and laces the girls' fruit drinks with it. There is a row afterwards because some of the girls pass out and are subsequently pronounced to be drunk when the matron at their school holds an inquiry. The Head gives a talk at morning assembly on the dangers of sex and alcohol. He also bans the Science Club.

We hand over the minute book and the funds go out of existence officially, but we continue to meet secretly in the school boiler room. The boiler room is an island of humanism in the ocean of authority. It is the only comfortable place in the school. The cripples who can't do drill or sports sit on sacks of coal and old packing cases, reading books about sex or smoking illicit cigarettes; deserters and conscientious objectors skulk among the pipes, and the Science Club continues its serious research projects in a corner which once held an electric lighting plant. When the Head liquidates the club he does not destroy its underground roots.

One afternoon we are all down there tinkering with the radio transmitter we have made in order to carry out a special exercise on Sports Day. We propose to install a secret circuit in the school amplifier system so that we can operate it by remote control through our transmitter. This, we hope, will enable us to superimpose embarrassing wisecracks on official announcements, introduce snatches of improbable music and bursts of gibberish when the Head is presenting the prizes and making speeches. We page 51have just been trying out a Shirley Temple record played backwards at the wrong speed.

"What we want," I say, "is something like that only a bit more crazy, a bit more violent. It wants to sound like somebody in the middle of a real balls up, yelling his head off, saying all sorts of mad things. What we want's a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Bob Semple, something that's completely opposite to the Head's idea of himself. He's a little man, see–and like all little jokers he thinks he's Napoleon. (I have just read a book on psychology and I'm a hot shot at character analysis.)

"And who do you think you are?" sneers one of the cripples who is listening–a pale, bitter casuist with a twisted foot. This is unexpected. I hadn't actually thought of that aspect of psychology.

"Yes, you," said the cripple. "You're busy pulling everyone's tit–what about your own?"

"I haven't got any,"I tell him coldly.

"Ha!" sneers the cripple. "That's what you think. And that's what you think because you think you're a great lady killer like Ramon Novarro or Errol Flynn or somebody."

"Shut up, you rotten little twisted up bastard!" I say. "You're jealous because the Head's daughter likes me, that's all. I can't help it if women are fascinated by me. It's just one of those things.

When the laughing stops I realise that the transmitter has been running all the time. Most of this dialogue has been picked up by the old carbon granule microphone we are using, but I don't suppose it matters; we are using a dummy aerial and it won't carry beyond the school buildings.

A few nights later, after I've been to dancing class, I am kissing the Head's daughter in the back seat of his Chev. where he has left it parked in his driveway. With analytic passion my tongue is exploring the inside of her throat while I rummage elbow deep in her clothing. The door is wrenched open and her father shines a torch on us.

"The great lady killer, eh!" he hisses. "Go to my study."

page 52

He hustles the girl inside and comes after me. Obviously he's been listening in to all our doings on his own wireless set in the house. He probably just leaves it running all the time and monitors us whenever we come on the air. So that's why he always seems to be one jump ahead of us! We'll have to change our frequency or something.

"This is just one of those things," he says when the caning begins. "Personally I think there's more of the Machiavelli about me than the Napoleon, and this is fortunate for you, otherwise I should most likely expel you."

When I do escape from that school I ask the Head for a reference. He smiles an omnipotent smile and scribbles.

It reads: "He took his part in school activities."