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Mag­is­te­rial rude­ness, cor­us­cat­ing wit, ex­treme kind­ness and de­light­ful ec­cen­tric­ity are just some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that shaped the ex­traor­di­nary leg­end of a real-life Mr Chips, says for­mer pupil Ru­pert Uloth

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Bi­og­ra­phy The Enigma of Kid­son Jamie Black­ett (Quiller, £25)

GO away lorry driver’, Michael Kid­son’s pithy re­sponse to a tirade of abuse af­ter Dou­gal, his beloved dog, ran into the road, earned him a place in Eton folk­lore. Erst­while Eton head­mas­ter Sir Eric An­der­son summed him up as ‘in­spi­ra­tional, un­con­ven­tional, in­dis­creet, dis­mis­sive, con­fronta­tional, out­ra­geously opin­ion­ated, sar­cas­tic, rude, po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, con­trary, sar­to­ri­ally cor­rect, charm­ing, kind, gen­er­ous, shy and deeply pri­vate’.

He taught ‘modern his­tory’, mostly 19th-cen­tury, and his he­roes Peel, Palmer­ston and Glad­stone he de­scribed as ‘gi­ants’; you felt they were in the room with you. His lessons in his old-fash­ioned class­room with black­board and map of pre-ver­sailles Europe were pure theatre, us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of de­scrip­tive ge­nius to bring events alive, dra­matic in­ter­ven­tions to main­tain at­ten­tion (the ac­cu­rate de­ploy­ment of a wooden-backed board rub­ber) and be­nign abuse.

An in­ter­rup­tion by a boy of Per­sian de­scent in my class was halted with ‘pipe down, you dusky car­pet seller’ and the late ar­rival by a new boy from the USA was greeted by ‘this must be the Amer­i­can’. Both came to adore him. He rev­elled in get­ting boys’ names wrong. ‘What’s your name, boy?’ ‘Foss, Sir.’ ‘Right Phos­phor.’ I was ‘Ukridge’. Althorp (Earl Spencer) was ‘All­trup’, al­though that was a dou­ble bluff, as that was the cor­rect way to pro­nounce it.

He was hot on pro­nun­ci­a­tion, of­ten to great comic ef­fect, and Fowler’s A Dic­tio­nary of Modern English Us­age his bi­ble. Dur­ing tu­to­ri­als in his book-lined study, with its an­tique clocks and sport­ing oils, and usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by gen­er­ous gin and ton­ics for us all, he would ex­plode dra­mat­i­cally if he heard the news­reader say ‘com-bat’ in­stead of ‘cum­but’ and make a great show of ring­ing up the BBC com­plaints depart­ment there and then. This neatly es­poused the Rei­thian prin­ci­ples as be­ing for their ed­u­ca­tion and our en­ter­tain­ment.

It was the naugh­tier boys in the school who got to know his flat the best. Nat Roth­schild ef­fec­tively moved in there when he was asked to leave be­fore his A lev­els. Let­ters found in Kid­son’s ef­fects af­ter his death re­veal how he was al­ways stick­ing up for the un­der­dog, im­plor­ing the head­mas­ter not to give up on boys who were prob­a­bly just go­ing through a phase.

He was also un­afraid to tell par­ents that their child was not as bril­liant as they thought he was. His judg­ment of char­ac­ter was rarely wide of the mark. He saw it as his mis­sion to ed­u­cate and civilise us, tak­ing trips to the opera, sale­rooms and rac­ing at As­cot. This com­bi­na­tion of em­pa­thy, re­al­ism and gen­eros­ity may have been dis­tilled as a re­ac­tion to his own un­happy child­hood: his mother dis­ap­peared when he was young.

The author Jamie Black­ett was beaten three times while at Eton, but went on to be­come a well­re­garded of­fi­cer in the Cold­stream Guards. He has art­fully gath­ered the rem­i­nis­cences of the great, the very good and the not so good. ‘A lot of what I achieved in life was down to Kid­son,’ ad­mits for­mer Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron. Says se­rial Olympic gold medal win­ner Matthew Pin­sent, ‘he loved his classes and his charges’. Dar­ius Guppy, who was later sent to prison, says that it was his fo­cus on in­di­vid­ual hero­ism and ad­ven­tur­ous acts that made Kid­son’s classes so ex­cit­ing.

If you en­joyed Dear Lupin, you will love this book, not least be­cause it pub­lishes more ma­te­rial from that source. Kid­son was Lupin’s tu­tor and Roger Mor­timer writes sev­eral let­ters to Kid­son about his way­ward son.

This is a de­light­ful record of how an ex­traor­di­nary man shaped so many var­ied lives. His charges have gone on to be ev­ery­thing from the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury to the win­ner of the Grand Na­tional and there are lists of peo­ple in pub­lic life who ac­knowl­edge their debt to him. I hope that a real-life Mr Chips like Kid­son could sur­vive in to­day’s more reg­u­lated ed­u­ca­tional cli­mate.

Kid­son kept a com­mon­place book and a quote from it by A. C. Ben­son sums up the ef­fect he had on many of us: ‘Ed­u­ca­tion is what re­mains when you have for­got­ten ev­ery­thing that you were taught.’

‘He saw it as his mis­sion to ed­u­cate and civilise us

TWO VERY dif­fer­ent vol­umes from Pen­guin mark the cen­te­nary of Rus­sia’s Rev­o­lu­tion. The first, a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries by 20 writ­ers who fled the Bol­she­viks in the first wave of em­i­gra­tion, is a pow­er­ful re­minder of the trauma of civil war and hard­ships of dis­place­ment. From Ivan Bunin, No­bel Lau­re­ate and pas­sion­ate up­holder of the ‘true’, pre1917 cul­tural her­itage, to younger writ­ers such as Nabokov, who wrote in the lan­guage of their adopted coun­try, the sto­ries evoke a lost world with at­ten­dant nos­tal­gia, sor­row, fear and anger.

Along with the pathos of gen­er­als re­duced to mak­ing raf­fia hats and pro­fes­sors work­ing as chauf­feurs comes hu­mour, both punc­tur­ing the pre­ten­sions of Rus­sians try­ing to em­u­late their hosts and mock­ing the stereo­typ­i­cal view of Rus­sia by Euro­peans (‘You can be sure they will or­der Zubrówka, bli­nis and even borscht,’ says a wait­ress in In Paris). But the true joy of this col­lec­tion is dis­cov­er­ing writ­ers, among them Bunin pro­tégé Galina Kuznetsova, satirist Ge­orgy Adamovich and the haunt­ing, quasi-ex­is­ten­tial­ist Ge­orgy Ivanov. Vir­tu­ally un­known, not only in the West—banned as they were un­der the Sovi­ets— but also in Rus­sia, rarely has the term ‘un­justly ne­glected’ rung more true.

While th­ese writ­ers, among others, were flee­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, one Vladimir Lenin, ex­iled in Switzer­land and fum­ing at what he con­sid­ered to be the in­suf­fi­ciently rad­i­cal out­come of the Fe­bru­ary rev­o­lu­tion—the ‘frag­ile com­pro­mises’ be­tween the Pro­vi­sional Govern­ment and the Soviet of Work­ers’ Deputies—was anx­ious to re­turn. Cather­ine Mer­ri­dale’s schol­arly ac­count of the chaotic events of 1917 is as grip­ping as any Buchan novel, com­plete with spies and bit parts from the likes of Som­er­set Maugham and Chali­apin.

She paints a vivid por­trait of the im­pa­tient, iras­ci­ble and ruth­less man who would scythe through in­de­ci­sion and op­po­si­tion to change the course of his­tory. Lenin’s re­turn to Rus­sia on the fa­mous ‘sealed train’, from Zurich, via Ger­many, Swe­den and Fin­land, forms the tiny cen­tre­piece of this book, sand­wiched be­tween un­fold­ing events in the cap­i­tal, Pet­ro­grad.

It is, how­ever, a jour­ney of mo­men­tous sig­nif­i­cance that would cul­mi­nate in Stalin’s gu­lags and 70 years of Com­mu­nism. One won­ders what might have hap­pened had the Ger­mans not cyn­i­cally al­lowed the ‘plague bacil­lus’ (as Churchill termed Lenin) pas­sage through their coun­try in the hope that his re­turn would desta­bilise Rus­sia’s role in the ‘cap­i­tal­ist-im­pe­ri­al­ist war’ in Europe. It would do much worse than that. Teresa Levo­nian Cole

Kid­son’s for­mer pupils: Far left: Justin Welby, now Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury. Left: Olympian Wil­liam Fox-pitt.

Above: Food writer Tom Parker­bowles. Right: For­mer Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron

Left: Ac­tor Do­minic West. Above: Fash­ion en­tre­pre­neur John­nie Bo­den

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