Work by P. G. Wodehouse
With a pleasure that's emphatic
We retire to our attic
With the satisfying feeling that our duty has been done.
Oh! philosophers may sing
Of the troubles of a king
But of pleasures there are many and of troubles there are none,
And the culminating pleasure
Which we treasure beyond measure
Is the satisfying feeling that our duty has been done.
W. S. Gilbert
Work is supposed to be the centre round which school life revolves—the
hub of the school wheel, the lode-star of the schoolboy's existence,
and a great many other things. 'You come to school to work', is the
formula used by masters when sentencing a victim to the wailing and
gnashing of teeth provided by two hours' extra tuition on a hot
afternoon. In this, I think, they err, and my opinion is backed up by
numerous scholars of my acquaintance, who have even gone so far—on
occasions when they themselves have been the victims—as to express
positive disapproval of the existing state of things. In the dear, dead
days (beyond recall), I used often to long to put the case to my
form-master in its only fair aspect, but always refrained from motives
of policy. Masters are so apt to take offence at the well-meant
endeavours of their form to instruct them in the way they should go.
What I should have liked to have done would have been something after
this fashion. Entering the sanctum of the Headmaster, I should have
motioned him to his seat—if he were seated already, have assured him
that to rise was unnecessary. I should then have taken a seat myself,
taking care to preserve a calm fixity of demeanour, and finally, with a
preliminary cough, I should have embarked upon the following moving
address: 'My dear sir, my dear Reverend Jones or Brown (as the case may
be), believe me when I say that your whole system of work is founded on
a fallacious dream and reeks of rottenness. No, no, I beg that you will
not interrupt me. The real state of the case, if I may say so, is
briefly this: a boy goes to school to enjoy himself, and, on arriving,
finds to his consternation that a great deal more work is expected of
him than he is prepared to do. What course, then, Reverend Jones or
Brown, does he take? He proceeds to do as much work as will steer him
safely between the, ah—I may say, the Scylla of punishment and the
Charybdis of being considered what my, er—fellow-pupils euphoniously
term a swot. That, I think, is all this morning. Good day. Pray
do not trouble to rise. I will find my way out.' I should then have
made for the door, locked it, if possible, on the outside, and, rushing
to the railway station, have taken a through ticket to Spitzbergen or
some other place where Extradition treaties do not hold good.
But 'twas not mine to play the Tib. Gracchus, to emulate the O.
Cromwell. So far from pouring my opinions like so much boiling oil into
the ear of my task-master, I was content to play the part of audience
while he did the talking, my sole remark being 'Yes'r' at fixed
And yet I knew that I was in the right. My bosom throbbed with the
justice of my cause. For why? The ambition of every human new boy
is surely to become like J. Essop of the First Eleven, who can hit a
ball over two ponds, a wood, and seven villages, rather than to
resemble that pale young student, Mill-Stuart, who, though he can
speak Sanskrit like a native of Sanskritia, couldn't score a single
off a slow long-hop.
And this ambition is a laudable one. For the athlete is the product of
nature—a step towards the more perfect type of animal, while the
scholar is the outcome of artificiality. What, I ask, does the scholar
gain, either morally or physically, or in any other way, by knowing who
was tribune of the people in 284 BC or what is the precise difference
between the various constructions of cum? It is not as if
ignorance of the tribune's identity caused him any mental unrest. In
short, what excuse is there for the student? 'None,' shrieks Echo
enthusiastically. 'None whatever.'
Our children are being led to ruin by this system. They will become
dons and think in Greek. The victim of the craze stops at nothing. He
puns in Latin. He quips and quirks in Ionic and Doric. In the worst
stages of the disease he will edit Greek plays and say that Merry quite
misses the fun of the passage, or that Jebb is mediocre. Think, I beg
of you, paterfamilias, and you, mater ditto, what your feelings would
be were you to find Henry or Archibald Cuthbert correcting proofs of
The Agamemnon, and inventing 'nasty ones' for Mr Sidgwick! Very
well then. Be warned.
Our bright-eyed lads are taught insane constructions in Greek and Latin
from morning till night, and they come for their holidays, in many
cases, without the merest foundation of a batting style. Ask them what
a Yorker is, and they will say: 'A man from York, though I presume you
mean a Yorkshireman.' They will read Herodotus without a dictionary for
pleasure, but ask them to translate the childishly simple sentence:
'Trott was soon in his timber-yard with a length 'un that whipped
across from the off,' and they'll shrink abashed and swear they have
not skill at that, as Gilbert says.
The papers sometimes contain humorous forecasts of future education,
when cricket and football shall come to their own. They little know the
excellence of the thing they mock at. When we get schools that teach
nothing but games, then will the sun definitely refuse to set on the
roast beef of old England. May it be soon. Some day, mayhap, I shall
gather my great-great-grandsons round my knee, and tell them—as one
tells tales of Faery—that I can remember the time when Work was
considered the be-all and the end-all of a school career. Perchance,
when my great-great-grandson John (called John after the famous Jones
of that name) has brought home the prize for English Essay on 'Rugby
v. Association', I shall pat his head (gently) and the tears
will come to my old eyes as I recall the time when I, too, might have
won a prize—for that obsolete subject, Latin Prose—and was only
prevented by the superior excellence of my thirty-and-one fellow
students, coupled, indeed, with my own inability to conjugate
Such days, I say, may come. But now are the Dark Ages. The only thing
that can possibly make Work anything but an unmitigated nuisance is the
prospect of a 'Varsity scholarship, and the thought that, in the event
of failure, a 'Varsity career will be out of the question.
With this thought constantly before him, the student can put a certain
amount of enthusiasm into his work, and even go to the length of rising
at five o'clock o' mornings to drink yet deeper of the cup of
knowledge. I have done it myself. 'Varsity means games and yellow
waistcoats and Proctors, and that sort of thing. It is worth working
But for the unfortunate individual who is barred by circumstances from
participating in these joys, what inducement is there to work? Is such
a one to leave the school nets in order to stew in a stuffy room over a
Thucydides? I trow not.
Chapter one of my great forthcoming work, The Compleat Slacker,
contains minute instructions on the art of avoiding preparation from
beginning to end of term. Foremost among the words of advice ranks this
maxim: Get an official list of the books you are to do, and examine
them carefully with a view to seeing what it is possible to do unseen.
Thus, if Virgil is among these authors, you can rely on being able to
do him with success. People who ought to know better will tell you that
Virgil is hard. Such a shallow falsehood needs little comment. A
scholar who cannot translate ten lines of The Aeneid between the
time he is put on and the time he begins to speak is unworthy of pity
or consideration, and if I meet him in the street I shall assuredly cut
him. Aeschylus, on the other hand, is a demon, and needs careful
watching, though in an emergency you can always say the reading is
Sometimes the compleat slacker falls into a trap. The saddest case I
can remember is that of poor Charles Vanderpoop. He was a bright young
lad, and showed some promise of rising to heights as a slacker. He fell
in this fashion. One Easter term his form had half-finished a speech of
Demosthenes, and the form-master gave them to understand that they
would absorb the rest during the forthcoming term. Charles, being
naturally anxious to do as little work as possible during the summer
months, spent his Easter holidays carefully preparing this speech, so
as to have it ready in advance. What was his horror, on returning to
School at the appointed date, to find that they were going to throw
Demosthenes over altogether, and patronize Plato. Threats, entreaties,
prayers—all were accounted nothing by the master who had led him into
this morass of troubles. It is believed that the shock destroyed his
reason. At any rate, the fact remains that that term (the summer term,
mark you) he won two prizes. In the following term he won three. To
recapitulate his outrages from that time to the present were a
harrowing and unnecessary task. Suffice it that he is now a Regius
Professor, and I saw in the papers a short time ago that a lecture of
his on 'The Probable Origin of the Greek Negative', created quite a
furore. If this is not Tragedy with a big T, I should like to
know what it is.
As an exciting pastime, unseen translation must rank very high.
Everyone who has ever tried translating unseen must acknowledge that
all other forms of excitement seem but feeble makeshifts after it. I
have, in the course of a career of sustained usefulness to the human
race, had my share of thrills. I have asked a strong and busy porter,
at Paddington, when the Brighton train started. I have gone for the
broad-jump record in trying to avoid a motor-car. I have played
Spillikins and Ping-Pong. But never again have I felt the excitement
that used to wander athwart my moral backbone when I was put on to
translate a passage containing a notorious crux and seventeen
doubtful readings, with only that innate genius, which is the wonder of
the civilized world, to pull me through. And what a glow of pride one
feels when it is all over; when one has made a glorious, golden guess
at the crux, and trampled the doubtful readings under foot with
inspired ease. It is like a day at the seaside.
Work is bad enough, but Examinations are worse, especially the Board
Examinations. By doing from ten to twenty minutes prep every night, the
compleat slacker could get through most of the term with average
success. Then came the Examinations. The dabbler in unseen translations
found himself caught as in a snare. Gone was the peaceful security in
which he had lulled to rest all the well-meant efforts of his guardian
angel to rouse him to a sense of his duties. There, right in front of
him, yawned the abyss of Retribution.
Alas! poor slacker. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of
most excellent fancy. Where be his gibes now? How is he to cope with
the fiendish ingenuity of the examiners? How is he to master the
contents of a book of Thucydides in a couple of days? It is a fearsome
problem. Perhaps he will get up in the small hours and work by candle
light from two till eight o'clock. In this case he will start his day a
mental and physical wreck. Perhaps he will try to work and be led away
by the love of light reading.
In any case he will fail to obtain enough marks to satisfy the
examiners, though whether examiners ever are satisfied, except by Harry
the hero of the school story (Every Lad's Library, uniform edition, 2s
6d), is rather a doubtful question.
In such straits, matters resolve themselves into a sort of drama with
three characters. We will call our hero Smith.
Scene: a Study
Enter SMITH (down centre)
He seats himself at table and opens a Thucydides.
Enter CONSCIENCE through ceiling (R.), MEPHISTOPHELES
through floor (L.).
CONSCIENCE (with a kindly smile): Precisely what I was about to
remark, my dear lad. A little Thucydides would be a very good thing.
Thucydides, as you doubtless know, was a very famous Athenian
SMITH: Er—um—let me see.
MEPH. (aside): Look in the Introduction and pretend you did it
SMITH (having done so): 431 B.C. circ.
CONSCIENCE wipes away a tear.
CONSCIENCE: Thucydides made himself a thorough master of the concisest
MEPH.: And in doing so became infernally obscure. Excuse shop.
SMITH (gloomily): Hum!
MEPH. (sneeringly): Ha!
CONSCIENCE (gently): Do you not think, my dear lad, that you had
better begin? Time and tide, as you are aware, wait for no man. And—
CONSCIENCE: You have not, I fear, a very firm grasp of the subject.
However, if you work hard till eleven—
SMITH (gloomily): Hum! Three hours!
MEPH. (cheerily): Exactly so. Three hours. A little more if
anything. By the way, excuse me asking, but have you prepared the
subject thoroughly during the term?
SMITH: My dear sir! Of course!
SMITH: Well, perhaps, not quite so much as I might have done. Such a
lot of things to do this term. Cricket, for instance.
MEPH.: Rather. Talking of cricket, you seemed to be shaping rather well
last Saturday. I had just run up on business, and someone told me you
made eighty not out. Get your century all right?
SMITH (brightening at the recollection): Just a bit—117 not
out. I hit—but perhaps you've heard?
MEPH.: Not at all, not at all. Let's hear all about it.
CONSCIENCE seeks to interpose, but is prevented by MEPH., who eggs
SMITH on to talk cricket for over an hour.
CONSCIENCE (at last; in an acid voice): That is a history of the
Peloponnesian War by Thucydides on the table in front of you. I thought
I would mention it, in case you had forgotten.
SMITH: Great Scott, yes! Here, I say, I must start.
CONSCIENCE: Hear! Hear!
MEPH. (insinuatingly): One moment. Did you say you had
prepared this book during the term? Afraid I'm a little hard of
hearing. Eh, what?
SMITH: Well—er—no, I have not. Have you ever played billiards with a
walking-stick and five balls?
MEPH.: Quite so, quite so. I quite understand. Don't you distress
yourself, old chap. You obviously can't get through a whole book of
Thucydides in under two hours, can you?
CONSCIENCE (severely): He might, by attentive application to
study, master a considerable portion of the historian's chef
d'oeuvre in that time.
MEPH.: Yes, and find that not one of the passages he had prepared was
set in the paper.
CONSCIENCE: At the least, he would, if he were to pursue the course
which I have indicated, greatly benefit his mind.
MEPH. gives a short, derisive laugh. Long pause.
MEPH. (looking towards bookshelf): Hullo, you've got a decent
lot of books, pommy word you have. Rodney Stone, Vice Versa, Many
Cargoes. Ripping. Ever read Many Cargoes?
CONSCIENCE (glancing at his watch): I am sorry, but I must
really go now. I will see you some other day.
MEPH.: Well, thank goodness he's gone. Never saw such a fearful
old bore in my life. Can't think why you let him hang on to you so. We
may as well make a night of it now, eh? No use your trying to work at
this time of night.
SMITH: Not a bit.
MEPH.: Did you say you'd not read Many Cargoes?
SMITH: Never. Only got it today. Good?
MEPH.: Simply ripping. All short stories. Make you yell.
SMITH (with a last effort): But don't you think—
MEPH.: Oh no. Besides, you can easily get up early tomorrow for the
SMITH: Of course I can. Never thought of that. Heave us Many
_Begins to read. MEPH. grins fiendishly, and vanishes through floor
enveloped in red flame. Sobbing heard from the direction of the
Next morning, of course, he will oversleep himself, and his Thucydides
paper will be of such a calibre that that eminent historian will writhe
in his grave.