Lessons in hard knocks from chronicler of class divisions

George Orwell was a scholar who attracted no fees and a great deal of resentment. He was told he could not have a cricket bat as his parents "couldn't possibly afford it".

Such, Such, Were the Joys An Essay
George Orwell
Penguin, £0.99

Penguin is publishing a 56-page essay written by George Orwell that even he considered to be so libellous it wasn’t seen anywhere until after 1952, when the wife of the headmaster of St Cyprian’s prep school finally died. She was referred to as Flip, and her husband was called Sambo — by the boys that is — in what may sound like an affectionate term, but Orwell clearly loathed them.

St Cyprian’s “…was an expensive and snobbish school which was in the process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive.” It was one of a number of private, feepaying schools that was a kind of primary school for toffs that went on to Eton when they were 13. If the titled or rich were not intellectually up to it, they went to lesser establishments such as Uppingham. The first thing Orwell did on arrival was to serially wet his bed, a symptom of fright and being taken from your family at about seven years old, but considered a crime at St Cyprian’s, punishable by a thrashing.

Orwell came out of his first beating and defiantly announced that it ‘didn’t hurt’. When asked to repeat this he did so, and was given a second beating so severe that it went on for five minutes and it really did hurt. St Cyprian’s was where Orwell must have been inspired by the complexities of class, and why he became its greatest chronicler. Some boys were rich and thick, but were revered by Flip and Sambo as they paid the full fees. Some were titled and were fed cakes and affability.

Orwell was a scholar who attracted no fees and a great deal of resentment. He was told he could not have a cricket bat as his parents “couldn’t possibly afford it”, and pressure was applied on him to achieve results — which he did by attaining two scholarships and then going on to Eton.

The primary ingredients of a great writer are observation, yes, but also bloody-mindedness. Hale, the big bully, learned of this trait after he had laid into Orwell once too often. “I let a minute go by and I walked up to Hale with the most harmless air I could assume, and then, getting the weight of my body behind it, smashed my fist into his face.”

There are oddities about this piece. It is narrowly focussed, as the war is not mentioned at all and Orwell would have been at the school during the Somme, and, although he hated his time at St Cyprian’s, there are other former pupils such as Cecil Beaton who thought his time there was “hilariously funny”.


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