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
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