IT IS THE FATE -- some would say the
blessing--of colonies that they perpetuate certain archaic institutions of the old country, long after the originals have been reformed. Thus it was that the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, Kenya, resembled in the early 1950s nothing so much as a British public school of the period preceding World War I. Equatorial heat notwithstanding, we wore flannels, ties, and navy-style blazers which glittered at breast and wrist with the insignia of discipline and sportsmanship. (My own was conspicuously drab.) We studied the speckled, damp-smelling texts of ancient publishers: Hillard & Botting's Shorter Latin Primer, Bagehot on the British constitution, Spenser's Faery Queene with the naughty stanzas asterisked. There was Chapel every morning and Flag Parade every Saturday. Once a year we were bused through the bush to the Kenya Girls' High, where exquisite creatures in white blouses and gray skirts faced us in debate. When dreams of these creatures tormented us afterward, the squeaky-voiced school chaplain, who believe it or not was called Father Capon, prescribed cold showers.
Our masters were generally Oxbridge types seeking refuge from Clem Attlee's welfare state--boozy bachelors with malodorous pipes, talking endlessly about rugby. I sought my own refuge from them in novels which I wrote, behind cover of an atlas, at the rearmost possible desk of every class. Then, one new term, Mr. W.W. Atkinson walked through the door, and the world opened like a flower.
He merely nodded and smiled--a portly, silver-fringed, sixtyish man--yet the sight of him was cathartic. I became intensely aware of texture, of sounds: the wooden desktop grainy beneath my fingers, the shamba boy outside swishing his scythe through the kikuyu grass. Mr. Atkinson's mild blue eyes swept the room. His lower lip shot out, and his throat worked convulsively. "Gggggood morning," he said.
There was an explosion of giggles, and for the first time in my life I felt uncontrollable anger. "Shut up!" I screamed. "You bastards!" But Mr. Atkinson seemed merely amused.
"Your lllanguage, young man, lleaves much to be ddddddddd--"
"If you ever interrupt me again," said Mr. Atkinson, suddenly articulate, "I'll knock your block off."
A flash of ice in the blue gaze chilled us to respect. Humor and authority had been established in a matter of seconds. There was a moment of utter silence, broken only by the click- swish-click-swish of the scythe outside. Mr. Atkinson, catching it, beat time to the rhythm. His large hand moved hypnotically through the air. "How vvvery convenient! I was planning to teach you the Augustan cccouplet today!"
Eyes closed, he began to recite Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." I had not heard it before, much less seen an English landscape; many of the words were as foreign as those in Hillard & Botting, but never in 30 years since has poetry sounded so beautiful to me. Mr. Atkinson's stammer, far from distorting the meter, enhanced it with tempo rubato, and added sublime onomatopoeic effects:
The Curfew ttolls the knell of pparting day,
The llowing herd wwinds slowly o'er the llea,
The plowman homeward pplods his wwweary way,
And llleaves the wworld to darkness, and to mmme.
In the weeks and months that followed Mr. Atkinson imbued us with the literature, art, and manners of England in the 18th century. No other place, no other period was worthy of consideration. "Balance! That's what they had in the Augustan era, bbbalance!" The finely tuned wit of Dr. Johnson, the symmetries of Chippendale and Sheraton, Handel's da capo arias, the formal landscapes of Gainsborough ("Ddon't anybody talk to me about Constable, the man was a ppppp--" "Peasant, sir? Ouch, sir! Sorry, sir!")--all these represented, for him, civilization at its brief apogee. "With the exxxxception of Jane Austen, nobody created anything worth a damn after the Regent took over." Frowning and beating time, he rumbled the matchless invective of Shelley--
An old, mad, bblind, ddespised and dying king,
Pprinces, the dregs of their race, that fflow,
Mud from a mmuddy spring . . .
Although my worship of Mr. Atkinson must have been obvious, he never paid me much attention. He was too aristocratic to be familiar; indeed, had he ever winked, or addressed me by anything other than my surname, I would have recoiled in disillusion. I loved his remote, other-wordly air, the way his eyes, half-closed, seemed to contemplate vanished horizons. He aroused in me a strange nostalgia for lands I had not seen, times I (and for that matter he) could never have known. Only twice, as I recall, did he venture an opinion of me. There was an epigram on my report card, so graceful I did not know whether to laugh or cry: "Despite his natural levity, he habitually gravitates to the bottom." The other comment, scrawled in red ink on the last essay I handed him, did make me cry, but out of rapture. "You," wrote old W.W., "have the most precious gift of all--originality."
Mr. Atkinson taught us only two terms, then for some reason went "Home" on leave and never came back. For a while I was inconsolable, but the memories of boys are short, and soon I was writing novels again. Only gradually, as I grew older, did I realize howwmuch he had done to unlock my eyes and ears and mind, and stimulate that vague yearning which drives the writer's pen. "Full many a fflower," he used to remind us, "is bborn to bblush unseen." For what few petals I have been able to grow and sell, I give him all thanks.