WHATSAPP WITH WINE
Updated: Aug 22
WhatsApp With Wine is where I 'WhatsApp' a guest for an interview about a recommended book for secondary school teachers. This book is strictly not about how to teach better: it should be a book that inspires more reading, knowledge, discussion and critical thinking. The interview does not have to take place over WhatsApp and drinking wine is not compulsory. Otherwise I feel that the title is perfect.
To Serve Them All My Days
by R. F. Delderfield
Recommended by Ben Horan
Ben Horan is a teacher of History and a Senior Deputy Head (Academic). He chose to discuss To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield
I confess that I have never heard of Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All My Days, even though this 1972 novel was turned into a television drama. Naturally I wanted to start by finding out about the plot. “It’s about life in a west country, public school between the wars,” explains Ben. The main character, David Powlett-Jones, is a veteran of The Great War and finds his socialist beliefs challenged when he accepts a History teaching post, at a Devon, public school. The entrenched elitism of the school is juxtaposed with Powlett-Jones’ Methodist, socialist values. “He knocks the edges off of the school and the school in turn knocks the edges off of him.”
“It’s that notion of service, which isn’t necessarily a word we associate with teachers too much.”
It is pretty clear that Ben has read it more than once. “I must have been about 15 when I read it for the first time.” Like many memorable books, the impact is felt in formative years. What makes him return to it? “It’s that notion of service, which isn’t necessarily a word we associate with teachers too much.” This is true. The prevailing discourse in teaching often focuses on career advancement, progression and development. Still, teaching is a service ultimately and one that requires employees ‘to serve’ and make sacrifices because of its demanding nature. So, To Serve Them All My Days should be read perhaps because this world of 1919 can bring contemporary education into focus.
Powlett-Jones represents a generation who had to grow up early. After fighting in The Great War, young men like him faced a UK that was divided politically, with socialist groups and fascist sympathisers, not to mention economic depression culminating in The General Strike. This was a generation who faced conflict on and off the battlefield. In the novel, the protagonist’s sympathies lie with the traditional values of the Labour Party, such as community spirit. Powlett-Jones is able to offer values, derived from his socialist principles, which strengthen the privileged world of the public school. In turn, he has to acclimatise to the privileges of the rich.
Delderfield does not explore his character’s war experiences, preferring instead to focus on the theme of the young man having to grow up quickly “way before his time”. Has much changed in the classroom? “The schoolboy characters are quite realistic; they are funny in many ways and challenge the young, inexperienced teachers at all opportunities.” Additionally, being a war veteran counts for nothing as Powlett-Jones must earn the respect regardless of what he has done before.
“I interview a lot of people and what comes through is that people do not go into teaching for the money and that teachers generally could have done something else (lucratively) if they had wanted."
What becomes transparent from this discussion with Ben is the theme of service. “It is about him doing all he can to prepare the boys he teaches for life outside and then he eventually becomes the headmaster.” The novel is set at a time when people understood that having a public role meant putting something back into the community. In contemporary Britain the sense of service is accompanied by a certain individualism. Teachers need a degree and most now go into debt for it. The debt has to be paid. When I mention this, Ben is quick to add that Powlett-Jones does not have a degree. His Oxford place was interrupted by war; military service came before educational development.
Nevertheless, Ben feels that the notion of service has survived, despite radical changes in the way that people are educated. “I interview a lot of people and what comes through is that people do not go into teaching for the money and that teachers generally could have done something else (lucratively) if they had wanted. Teachers typically want to go the extra mile and this is certainly true of the common room I work with.”
It would have been easy, no doubt, for Delderfield to have written extensively about the corporal punishment in schools at the time. Whilst corporal punishment features in the plot, Powlett-Jones does not use it, says Ben. Personally, I think of canings and humiliating punishment as rife at that time, forgetting that, whilst it may have been an option, it is not to say that all teachers routinely chastised in this way. “I think by the time you get to the interwar period there were those who did (use corporal punishment) and those who didn’t. Enough educationalists saw such measures as counter-productive.” In talking to colleagues who taught during the period before corporal punishment was banned, I know that it has always been an uneasy topic of conversation. Ben agrees: those who witnessed it were usually uncomfortable about it.
“We create an environment based on kindness – good schools have always done that.”
What emerges from Delderfield, according to Ben, is the overarching sense of warmth and empathy required to educate young people. The notion of community underpins the school in Delderfield’s novel as it arguably does in real life schools, even today. “We create an environment based on kindness – good schools have always done that.” Perhaps the public school system owes more to traditional socialism than it realises. The ‘community’ is a place of shared values and ownership; schools are often described as communities. Nevertheless, the paradox at work could be that, by being a community, schools nurture great individuals; meanwhile, the socialist must also see the value of a hierarchy based on individual potential. To Serve Them All My Days is about how an individual's personal values must negotiate with institutional ethos.
To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield is published by Hodder and Stoughton