I could not believe it. In the exam at end of my first term of studying the language, the master had set the questions in French. I do not believe that in class we had ever put more than a few sentences together and we hadn’t had any conversation. Oh, I knew some vocabulary, I had learned off some irregular verbs, and here on the exam paper were the questions in French and I couldn’t read them. As it transpired I wasn’t alone. On my answer paper I drew a big Christmas tree and wrote under it ‘Bon Noel Monsieur,’ and when the results came out the master gave me six out of a hundred.
A boys’ boarding school in the early 1950’s was a tough enough place to be. With few exceptions, boys, as they became senior, adopted the principle: ‘since I had to endure its rigours myself, I’m going to impose the same regime on those who come after me.’ Old boys who had been there in earlier times had tough stories to tell. Having survived it they implied the place had become little more than a holiday camp.
The skill for new boys was to learn to observe the rules and customs in order to stay out of trouble, and part of this was to learn the idiosyncrasies of the various masters. They were a mixed bunch, but Mug somehow was different from the rest.
Mug was my friend the French master. He was at the upper end of the masters’ seniority scale gauged in years of service in the school. He was about 5ft six, square build, he had a fine head of grey hair, short and brushed back, and he had a grey tightly clipped moustache. He wore a striped blue grey suit with waistcoat, black leather shoes and above all he was neat and tidy.
He arrived into school in good time in the mornings in his Morris Minor. He locked the car and, carrying his brief case, walked right round it on a little tour of inspection before making for the masters study, to don his gown for his day’s teaching.
Mug also taught English, and it seemed that his ambition was that boys should know by heart large chunks, if not all, of Gray’s Elegy. Learning poetry comes more easily to some people than others, but woe betide the boy who recited his allotted portion of Gray’s Elegy imperfectly. If a boy left long silences during his recitation, or stuttered and stammered, Mug would move slowly down the classroom until he was beside him. At the next pause or stutter he would catch him by the short hairs of his sideburn and pull him up until he was standing on the seat, when Mug would finally let go. He would then return to his desk at the front of the class, open his little detention notebook, look down the room and say: ‘Name, boy?’ He would record the punishment and pick on another scholar to recite. Apart from Gray’s Elegy I learned only one other thing from Mug. He had an abhorrence of the word ‘got’ and warned us against ever using it any work we did for him.
In his schoolmasterly duties outside the classroom Mug was out of sync with his colleagues. Masters were ‘on duty’ on a rota basis and over a term any master might be on duty on any day of the week. That was except Mug, who was always on duty on Tuesdays. In prep. we had to wear slippers and other masters, if they happened to notice a boy in shoes would send him to his locker to change. Mug, however, would work his way systematically around the room inspecting the feet of every boy, and if he discovered one unfortunate enough to be wearing shoes, the boy found himself next day in detention.
It was said that outside school Mug was a kindly and gentle person. At one time he and Maggie his wife used to have boys from the country, who had nowhere to go on exeat Sundays, to lunch in their home.
With great respect to all the country’s fine teachers, perhaps it was, with the likes of Mug in mind, that the saying was coined : ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,’ – and set exam questions that most of the class can’t read.