Leslie Scrase was at Shebbear from 1942 to 1949. He is writing a sequence of novels in the genre of autobiographical fiction. A Prized Pupil (published by United Writers. £16.95) is the second volume and is a lightly veiled account of his years at Shebbear.
The volume is dedicated to three Shebbearians: Jackson Page (JP), Guy Wright and John Shapcott. Like JP, Guy Wright returned to teach, for two years 1946-48, when he illuminated junior maths, music and the stage. He died tragically young. John Shapcott was also struck down in his prime.
The fictional Scrase, Roger Wallace, arrives at Perspins (as in Ad gloriam ….) for winter term 1942. His contemporaries will easily decode the transparent change of other names. Wallace was an evacuee when Shebbear provided a rural escape from the ravages of German bombs for many urban boys, and thus became a more diverse community than it had ever been – greatly to its advantage.
There are broadly three threads: school life; the war and the author’s evolving attitude towards it; and a (perhaps vicarious) romance.
The new boy anticipated a recreation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays or Stalky & Co. Although he seems to have been disappointed in this, the narrative is not without echoes of both, particularly perhaps the former. The book proceeds at a crisp pace and faithfully describes the ethos and rhythm of Shebbear in that era. As Scrase relives scrapes, scats, triangle runs, rugby triumphs, spud picking, scout camp, ditch and dyke (oh yes), the school play and dawning appreciation of an exceptional schoolmaster (Mr Emerson alias JP), the chapters are necessarily episodic. It is interesting to compare the fictional account with coeval editions of the Shebbearian.There is a graphic description of our hero’s debut for the 1st XV, mirrored score for score in a (Winter 1947 edition) report of an exciting win against Kelly College. He routs the Tories in a Union debate (the Spring 1949 edition informs us: “Mr Scrase spoke throughout with much confidence”) and comes second to “John Cob” in the senior cross country – a photo of Scrase and John Shapcott captioned “Runner up and Winner” is in the same edition.
Another arrival in 1942 was J.B. Morris. Although the author’s first impression of JBM, accurately enough, was of a “human dynamo”, some of his later appearances in the book seem rather caricatured. The rugby tackle dramatically executed on the unpleasant and dishonest Mr Smart at ‘Downland Halt’ station is nevertheless chalked to his credit. (Anyone who can recall this episode might enlarge in a letter to the OS editor or an email to the OSA web site).
The three wartime years (1942-45) occupy three quarters of the book. The author provides regular mileposts – the London blitz, Alamein, Monte Casino, D Day, Doodlebugs, VE Day, etc. These act as a peg on which to offer his reflections on this war and on war in general. One of Wallace’s older brothers visits Shebbear to tell him another has been killed flying his Hurricane in North Africa. There is poignancy here, and there is a moving passage when, on Remembrance Day some years later, Wallace reads the names of those killed in both World Wars, silently adding his brother’s name at the end. There is humour too for those who may find mid-century resonance in his parents’ fastidious economy with the telephone and shock at a daring request for two shillings (10p) extra pocket money for a visit to Lords – he tries his mother first, of course.
Then there is Gladys. Wallace has a fling with this pretty kitchen maid and is emotionally as well as physically smitten. An initial disclaimer implies that his occasional trysts with Gladys, hazardous and intense, may be less autobiographical than much else in the book. It is after all a novel.
A Prized Pupil gives a good and atmospheric idea of Shebbear in the 1940s. It is over 60 years since Wallace arrived at Perspins. Imagine the difference between the school shaped by J.B Morris and the establishment run by Ruddle 60 years earlier. Then fast forward to 2003 and be surprised, not by the evident differences, but by the survival of so many familiar features. Guy Wright would be proud of today’s music even if a little incredulous at the existence of 10 Visiting Music Staff. Roger Wallace would surmise the school Food Technician does not prescribe maggots as a meat supplement. But there were redeeming features in what we might now call the late Middle Ages. Among other things one is reminded what good writing there was in the Shebbearian when three boys were editors under the supervision of JP. In the Summer 1947 edition there is a clever and amusing article by Leslie Scrase – “Learning One’s Lines” (for his part in Julius Caesar). The boy could write even then!