Lord Dismiss Us - Michael Campbell
A very curious bird this novel, as one of its colourful characters might say. A Boy’s School story but unlike Chris THE REAL TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS this one isn’t an erotic romp. Written in 1967, the year homosexuality became legal in the UK, it represents the tradition of the classic gay novel in which to love another man is nothing but misery, ruin and death, mind unbalanced by the body’s needs. Yet within that there is the promise that reflects decriminalisation and Swinging 60s sexual freedom.
Two very different characters represent the old & new. Eric Ashley is the troubled, tormented schoolmaster who foolishly (for him) returns to teach at his alma mater, Weatherhill, one of those minor English public schools with monastic seclusion. Only 24 Ashley has never got over his first love, a schoolmate now a clergyman respectably married, who put away childish things like schoolboy love.
TC Carleton in his final year at Weatherhill is 19, handsome, a successful athlete, one of those all-rounders everyone likes. It’s summer term and Carleton looks forward to an easy time having turned down the chance to be Head Prefect because he didn’t want the responsibility. Ashley arrives profoundly disappointed by not having secured a coveted position as poet at Cambridge. His whole life is a failure, though it began with such glittering promise, the advantages of privilege in an era less egalitarian that contemporary Britain.
I love Boy’s School stories, all that adolescent passion and rampaging hormones, youthful beauty and lithe limbs; but this is a pretty depressing book…you know early on it’s just not going to end well. Like Forster’s <a href="http://www.squashduck.com/ltd/reviews/maurice.htm">MAURICE</a> with Clive it is frustrating and difficult to understand WHY it all had to go wrong, how an intelligent character should want to stay trapped in a situation he could so easily get out of if only he could accept there is nothing shameful in who he is. That of course is the point, the mindset of another era that reminds us just how much things have changed: Ashley as past despair and Carleton a promising new dawn.
The novel appears to lay blame for homosexuality and accompanying angst on the public school system. Put small boys into an exclusively male environment deprived of family (especially maternal) affection and they will turn to each other for comfort. It deals with a small closed community where homosexuality is institutionalised until the arrival of a new headmaster determined to make his mark by stamping out such ‘unchristian practices’.
Paedophilia of course figures largely, with masters (who themselves went through this peculiar emotionally starved upbringing) in positions of authority abusing vulnerable boys left to their care, sometimes but not always in a benevolent and almost innocent way- the mentor who does everything he can to help those youths he admires, without harm.
It indicts a system that left boys/men emotionally stunted, damaged for life, imbued with a detachment made dangerous by violent outbursts of cruelty inculcated by a harsh discipline that allowed grown men to beat boys as punishment for petty misdemeanours, and older boys in turn to dish out the same to those lower down the pecking order. Some might baulk at the way child abuse appears to be condoned if the adult’s motives are well intentioned and centred on the boy rather than personal pleasure.
Ashley thinks Carleton is on track to become a casualty like him. By the end of the novel (typically tragic) I didn’t know for sure. Carleton does finally come to an awareness Ashley totally lacks that there is nothing wrong in loving another boy. His experience with Nicky Allen, 2 years his junior, is brief but transforming. This romantic relationship is the best part of the story, as the rather prissy and annoying Carleton, not above using little boys for physical release, falls in love and tries desperately hard to keep sex out of it because he can’t handle the implications of passionate love. It climaxes in a rather peculiar scene when Ashley gives Carleton use of his rooms to meet Nicky just before he is due to leave his schooldays behind.
Ashley’s infatuation with Carleton makes modern readers uncomfortable, though it’s important to remember there is only a 5-year age gap. The point is that Ashley has never grown up. He is incapable of a mature adult relationship with either sex and filled with shameful self-loathing denies himself any chance at happiness.
The novel has a large cast of oddbods and eccentrics and actually is surprisingly humorous. It’s not easy to find but worth looking out for if you are interested in the complications of human relationships and sexual attraction in the hothouse atmosphere of a boarding school. It should be read as history. I doubt it would be published today, certainly not as a mass-market paperback
This is the third book we’ve reviewed with this theme: homosexuality in English public schools. (The Real Tom Brown’s School Days; Now and Then) It’s my least favourite of the three, and that’s not because it’s not well written—it is—and it’s not because I didn’t get involved with it. I did. It seemed to me that the book was caught in its own trap somehow. It wanted to discuss a taboo subject, but respected the taboo at the same time. This is not a book about physical homosexuality, but emotional homosexuality. There’s no sex, only desperate longing and unrequited passion.
The book tells with some remarkable skill the emotional lives of boys and masters at a minor English public school. Their cosy homosexuality—innocent hero worship, note passing, coy nicknames—is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a new head (along with his awful wife and daughter) whose mission is to improve the failing roll and stamp out all this “muck”.
A witch-hunt ensues and as with many witch-hunts, the innocent are damaged and the evil escape. I think I’ve managed to make this book sound more interesting than it actually is. I found passages unreadable and the pace very slow at times. I’m tempted to say that reading this book is like watching cricket. And you have to be English to really get that analogy.
Perhaps if I’d not read “Tom Brown” and “Now and Then” I might have got more out of this one. But to be honest, once you’ve read them (one for the joyous, rampant sex; and one for the heart-wrenching description of the damage such schoolboy sex can have) you really won’t find this does much for you.
I’m honestly not sure this book is even accessible to anyone not well versed in the English school system or the classics. It’s not an easy read. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.