Chronicles of Halden, I

Alarms and Excursions

Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
-  Auksford, 2004  -

Chapter 5:

Evening conversations

Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004

Winston Greatbatch's exposé of the great comprehensive cover-up was read avidly throughout Halden and the whole of Swardale. For once the Courier had a scoop. Not a word of the sandalous events in Halden had reached its great rival, the Swardale News, published downriver in Swarrell, but the courageous Courier, in the person of its fearless ace-reporter, Winston Greatbatch, had succeeded in tearing away the veil of secrecy surrounding the affair, and, in spite of the gag imposed by the school authorities, had gained confirmation from an unimpeachable source, a senior mistress at the school itself, that a twelve-year old girl had suffered a brutal sexual assault at the hands of two boys.

Angry readers were told how parents' fears had been ignored as the school authorities refused to acknowledge the decline in standards of behaviour and discipline resulting from the combination of the boys' and girls' schools in the first stage of the council's comprehensivization plans. They read the opinions of reliable, on-the-spot witnesses like Mrs Eva Palmer, who had had to stop displaying fruit outside her greengrocery shop near the school. A bus conductor told of riotous behaviour on a school bus, with boys running wild on the top deck, totally out of control. They were reminded of an incident that had taken place only a couple of years earlier in which a group of schoolboys had posted a firework through a door, terrifying the elderly householder and her cat and almost setting the house alight. They noted that everyone had seen gangs of teenaged schoolboys charging along the pavements at four o'clock as if they owned the streets, oblivious to the rights of pedestrians and drivers alike, and they agreed that once a school starts going downhill anything can happen.

The school itself, they read, with increasing anger and amazement, had so far refused to comment on the situation. The only official spokesman the paper had been able to contact had refused to confirm or deny the report, or to co-operate in any way with the legitimate desire of the Press to carry out its duty to inform the public about an affair in which each and every one of its members was closely interested. The Headmaster was, apparently, not available to comment, and it was only thanks to the courage of a member of his staff, a senior mistress who had herself surprised the rapists in flagrante delicto, that the Courier was able to report at all. In an editorial comment the paper praised the vigilence of such women and deplored the inappropriate reticence of the authorities, suggesting that other little girls might suffer similar fates if the rapists were not speedily brought to justice, and implying that the Headmaster, the governors and the staff were seeking to cover up their incompetence and mismanagement and conceal other crimes that had not emerged into the public domain. It was not just the rapists who had been caught with their pants down.


Humming, Minnie Hodges sped, lambent as a flame, about her kitchen. Cups and saucers, plates and spoons and knives gleamed in her draining rack and seemed to skim through her hands to the crockery cupboard or the cutlery drawer, leaving every trace of moisture on her Irish linen tea-towel with its blue and green pictures of the Lake District, and the flash of gold where Wordsworth's daffodils stretched in miniature to cheer the daily round of washing up and drying.

Upstairs her husband, Andy, was lethargically discarding his chalk-stained workaday sportscoat and flannels, washing and freshening himself, and assuming a suit more fitting for the evening's entertainment: dinner with Minnie's great friend Mrs Johns. Spruce and smart - or as smart as a rotund, middle-aged schoolmaster with little care for personal appearance was ever likely to be, he descended the staircase to pick up the evening paper, which had lain undisturbed for some minutes on the mat, and Minnie heard its rustle as he sank comfortably into his favourite chair.

Then came a sudden sharp creak of protesting springs, a snorted "Hhhrrrmmmmph!" from Andy, and the angry clack and swish of the paper as he folded it to shape and smoothed it flat.

This was so unusual an event in the unemotional life of the equable Andy that Minnie paused in her work, then, leaving the Lake District spread across the oven door to dry, she moved lightly to the lounge to see what was amiss.

Andy showed her the report and told her he thought it irresponsible. Her curiosity was, of course, aroused. Her husband had made no mention of anything out of the ordinary happening at school, and now, blazed across the front page of the Halden Courier was an article suggesting that discipline was non-existent, rowdyism commonplace, sex rampant and rape an ugly reality. Scandal screamed from the headlines of a highly respectable, old-established organ of local information, but Andy talked of irresponsible sensationalism and said the affair, whatever it was, had been blown up out of all proportion. When Minnie heard that the unnamed senior mistress so highly praised by the Courier could be no other than Florence Hardacre she had to agree with him, and, as he knew no more, she put her curiosity aside and got ready for the evening.

As well as the usual crowd from that part of Halden's cultural intelligentsia which formed Lady Margaret Hall's salon there would be a distant connection of Mrs Johns, Gregory Thurston, fellow of St Matthew's College, Oxford, who, Mrs Johns had promised, would bring to the gathering a breath of the urbanity, wit and sophistication characteristic of England's older universities. Petty local affairs would count for nothing.

Mr Thurston, soon, Mrs Johns whispered, to be Dr Thurston, was said to have advanced views on everything. He was not merely liberal, he was an ultra-modern liberationist whose opinions could be relied on to spark controversy in the middle-class circle of Halden he was now condescending to visit.


"I think no-one would dispute the artificiality of society," said the Ultra-Modern Liberationist. "It has been a commonplace since the eighteenth century. Was it not Rousseau who proclaimed that Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains?"

"That was in quite another context," someone interjected.

"Nonetheless, Rousseau would not have objected to his striking phrase being used to describe Man's subjection to social constraints, which, you may remember, was his principal theme. Man is naturally good, he said, but society has corrupted him."

"Surely," said Lady Margaret, "society is the product of mankind. If all individuals are naturally good how can they produce a corrupt society?"

"No, Lady Margaret, forgive me, but there you are wrong. Society is not the product of the essential human individual, it is a product of the superego, which is quite a different matter - or rather: society and the superego have both evolved together, and each is dependent on the other. They are a symbiotic growth overlying the primal humanity of Man in just the same way that the cerebrum overlies the original primate brain."

Canon Tollgate frowned. "Are you saying that the essence of Man is basically that of a functioning body with a primitive brain controlling its motor and sensory functions, but without any of the higher powers of mental development and reason?"

The Ultra-Modern Liberationist was unaffected by the rumblings of Tollgate's anger. He was indeed happy to move on to the topic of reason - there might have been someone among his listeners who knew about the anatomy and physiology of the brain into which he had allowed himself to stray, but reason was a field that offered unimpeded scope for philosophical speculation and discussion.

"First if all," he said, "the overlying of the primitive cortex" - could that be right? - "by the cerebrum" - or did he mean cerebellum? - "was merely an analogy" - escape at last onto safer ground - "for the way in which natural and authentic feelings and behaviour have been concealed under a veneer of artificiality governed not by reason but by the dictates of the superego. Secondly, I am not sure what you mean by the higher mental powers, but as far as reason goes, one does feel more and more that reason has usurped the functions of other human attributes: imagination, intuition, the whole range of faculties and perceptions that are now dismissed as being irrational. You yourself cannot, I am sure, claim to be entirely happy with the supremacy of reason, in view of your calling."

Canon Tollgate's frown deepened. The furrows in his forehead formed a deep and strongly marked V above his nose and his brows lowered over his eyes like thunderclouds.

"I mean," continued the Ultra-modern Liberationist, "the Church in all its two thousand years has never called on reason to prove the existence of God. On the contrary it has always demanded that God's existence should be accepted as an act of faith - an element of the human psyche which the rationalist would dismiss as irrational, and therefore beneath contempt."

Canon Tollgate's cumulo-nimbic frown shifted but did not clear: the danger of a storm was far from past.

The Ultra-modern Liberationist, blithely unaware of the thunderbolt which hung poised like a sword of Damocles above his unsuspecting head, continued: "Not of course that I believe in God. God is merely the product of the superego in its most restrictive and hypermoralistic form."

"What do you mean by that'?" thundered Tollgate.

"Oh dear," said Lady Margaret, "I wonder if we might _"

"The evolutionary value of the superego," continued the Ultra-modern Liberationist, "consisted, of course, in its limiting the freedom of bodily appetites so that individual members of the species could co-operate in their fulfilment without unnecessarily eliminating one another in the process. Co-operation of this kind has been very successful, and we are now the dominant species on this Earth. The great pity is that the evolution of the superego did not stop at its simple disciplining of the grosser appetites of the id. The superego has continued to grow and develop long after it became unnecessary. It fostered the growth of religion to attain its ends, and it fostered the growth of what we call reason to attain other ends. As we have seen, the two should cancel each other out, and in many individuals they do indeed, hence the phenomenon known in intellectual circles as the Death of God."

He giggled.

"The superego has overreacted, and, in forging the sword of reason to combat the "irrational" elements stemming from Man's basic and authentic essence, it has created a weapon against its own other great creation, that same religious impulse which has held Man in thrall and prevented him from discovering his own essential humanity and following his necessary desires to their limit. Religion made man neurotic, the addition of reason has made him schizophrenic."

Canon Tollgate's throat rumbled with dissent. "Pshaw!" would be an inaccurate transcription. The sound, had a powerful microphone been placed closed to his lips, could have been amplified into a passable imitation of a thunderstorm rumbling in the distance and working itself up to sweep in with destructive fury as a warning to the cities of the plain.

"Er ... the weather has been so nice ..." began Mrs Johns, the ever anxious hostess, "I wonder ... ?"

"Am I to take it," rumbled Canon Tollgate, "that you are opposed both to religion and to reason?"

The Ultra-modern Liberationist nodded.

"Then," growled Tollgate, "on what moral principles do you intend your life to be based'?"

"None at all," crowed the Ultra-modern Liberationist triumphantly. "You see, Man is naturally good, all he has to do is abandon morality and principles and all other encumbrances created by the superego, and to become authentic!"

"But that's immoral," said Lady Margaret Hall

"There is no such thing as morality," answered the Ultra- modern Liberationst. "Morality, whether based on religion or reason, is a figment of the superego. That is the only reason why people feel guilty."

"Surely," said Minnie Hodges, "existential guilt is a necessary and essential element of the human condition."

"Original sin!" said Canon Tollgate,

"Guilt is inauthentic," cried the Ultra-modern Liberationist. "Original sin is ball-" - he corrected himself quickly - "-derdash Don't you see? Guilt only seems to be an essential element of the human condition because the superego makes it appear so. If you could free yourself from the dominance of your superego, you would be free of existential guilt, or, as our clerical friend would call it, the sense of original sin."

"Then what limitation," growled Canon Tollgate, "would you put on human conduct?"

"None at all!"

Minnie Hodges lambent as a flame and pliant as a windblown sleeve, tried to make peace. "You mean, of course," she said, "that, so long as human desires do not conflict with the general well-being of one's fellows and of humanity in general, they can be allowed free rein."

"Not at all! Not at all!" cried the Ultra-modern Liberationist, "That's not what I mean at all. Every human desire is an instinctive reaction to the innate urge to be of the authentic man. Moral and utilitarian criteria do not apply. They are creations of the super- ego. They are artificial. Desires are authentic and must be followed irrespective of external circumstances."

"EXTERNAL CIRCMTANCES!" roared Canon Tollgate. "If you had the urge to commit murder or rape, would your victim's sufferings be simply external circumstances as far as you are concerned?"

"Exactly," trilled the Ultra-modern Liberationist, "but your examples betray your closed mind. Animals don't murder. Man murders only because he has been rendered psychotic by the conflicts of his artificiality. And as for rape! Well, what is it but the insertion of the penis into the vagina for purposes of sexual intercourse? The rapist is acting naturally, and as for the so-called victim, my advice to her is to lie back and enjoy it!"

He beamed round on the company, delighted with the effects of his conversation. "Country bumkins," he thought. He might not shine at high table at St Matthew's, but Oxford had given him a glittering polish which quite dazzled the denizens of Halden. Had he been so inclined, he might at this point have cast his eyes up to heaven and thanked God that he was not as other men are, as it was he congratulated himself inwardly and felt worthier of his fellowship than ever before - and he found it in his heart to pity the poor, humdrum, ordinary people listening to him, and sought for an example from their daily lives to illustrate his theme.

"Take this affair of the rape at the local school," he crowed, "now that's just what I'm getting at."

He was a little ashamed of that 'getting at', it wasn't academic style, nonetheless he continued unabashed: "You see, the young have grasped the issue. They've got right to the heart of the matter. These two boys ..."

Canon Tollgate cut in: "That case is being discussed by the school governors tomorrow, and as both Lady Margaret and I are on the board, it is not right that we should take part in any discussion in advance of the meeting. I think in any case that it is time I left."

Lady Margaret murmured her agreement and signified that she too had to leave. The Rector of St Sweyne's escorted her to the door with such measured calm that only his intimates realised the strength of his feelings, and he gave no sign of hearing the Ultra-modern Liberationist's renewed chatter.

"You see, these two boys have realised that to become authentic they must liberate themselves from artificial constraints. It is increasingly true that among the young ..."

The door shut firmly behind the Canon.

"I wonder," thought Minnie Hodges, looking with distaste at the speaker, "what his attitude would be if his own pupils adopted his views."

She put the question to Mrs Pratt.

The Archdeacon's wife blushed with pleasure at being asked for her opinion on so interesting and important a subject.

"He is a little extreme, isn't he?" she murmured. "I'm afraid dear Canon Tollgate was really rather vexed."

A large prominent nose thrust its way into their conversation. "Well, of course," Rupert Todd confided, "there is a certain type of scholar who is just a little bit out of touch with reality, and although one wouldn't deny his brilliance in his own subject, I'm afraid Gregory Thurston is rather inclined to let his exuberance run away with him."

The ladies made vague noises of agreement, and Minnie tried to take advantage of the pause to retreat into one of the other groups, but Todd was not yet ready to let her go.

"I hope you won't think everyone from Oxford has views like that," he told her, "You see, Minnie, I know that there are strong views in Halden on the future of the school, and my own feelings are that one can't place too much stress on the importance of education."

Minnie Hodges felt a wave of revulsion at Todd's familiar use of her Christian name. She had met him for the first time only a few weeks ago at one of Ursula Waithe's dinners, and had taken an instant dislike to the way in which he had singled out the most influential people in the room for his attentions and for invitations to dinner "with my wife and I". In a short time he seemed to have wormed himself into the very heart of Lady Margaret's circle, and Minnie counted herself fortunate that, on hearing that her husband was a mere schoolmaster, he had largely ignored her. Todd however soon realised that his normally unerring instinct had let him down and that he had underestimated her influence. Now, it seemed, he had decided to cultivate her closer acquaintance. She did not find the prospect pleasing.

The sight of that round, confident head, and the forward thrusting of that dominant nose, inspired her with a deep distrust, which the confidential, almost silent laughter did nothing to dispel. Watching him undulating through a gathering from one influential person to the next, she could not help but feel that his soft-voiced words were calculated to sow distrust among friends, to stir up and trouble hitherto calm waters, so that he might fish to greater advantage. It would not normally have crossed her mind that anyone could manipulate Canon Tollgate, yet, when she had seen him in close conversation with Rupert Todd, the librarian's nose thrust into his face, she could not prevent herself from seeing Tollgate's tolerance of such intimacy as a shadow over her own relationship with him, as if their friendship had been violated by a phallic thrust from Rupert Todd's nose, and she had felt impelled to avoid her friend for some time afterwards until her buoyant spirits overcame the distaste. She was, however, unable to obliterate the disquieting sense of guilt that it gave her to feel that Rupert Todd polluted everyone he touched, when she alone in the whole of Halden, it seemed, had any reservations about him.

It was said that he was a brilliant man who combined scholarship with unusual administrative ability, and he had come with the best of recommendations from Oxford where he had spent several years in the Bodleian. He was a close friend of Professor Beasley, who had known him at Oxford, and, like that eminent scholar, a fellow of the Institut Vorochilov in Dijon. His father, it was well known, had been Senior Tutor at St Matthew's for a considerable period, and had been elected Master of Iscariot only a short while before his untimely death. Minnie tried vainly to suppress the thought in the back of her mind that Edmund Todd's position had assisted his son Rupert to rise beyond his abilities, but she could not bring to mind any notable piece of work performed by the Deputy Librarian either in Halden or in Oxford. His reputation seemed to be entirely based on fine words, most of them uttered by himself.

Though only half attending to the librarian's almost whispered confidences, Minnie had no difficulty in following the gist of his speech. He had recognised at once the shock and disgust called forth among the well-to-do citizens of Halden by Mr Thurston's moral philosophy, and was wasting no time in disassociating himself from his fellow Oxonian's opinions and aligning himself with the majority party. Minnie smiled mechanically whenever Todd signalled for applause - his jokes were followed by a spasm of silent laughter, a pause in which he thrust his nose into the air as if to smell out the reaction of his auditors, and a final snigger of satisfaction at their approval - and she acquiesced absent-mindedly in his desire that Canon Tollgate and Lady Margaret should realise that not everyone from Oxford held such unusual opinions.

It was a relief to her when he at length decided that his influence with Minnie Hodges had been sufficiently improved, and oozed away to look for another patron. She saw his nodding head and thrusting nose hurl itself at the faces of several people without pausing in a course that was to take it unerringly towards the Bishop. Minnie sighed and turned away, almost colliding with a shortish, tubby, balding figure, who blinked at her apprehensively from behind his dark-rimmed spectacles and retreated against the wall.

"So sorry," he murmured. "Please do forgive me".

"Oh, good evening, Mr Waithe," cried Minnie with genuine pleasure, "how nice to ... er ... bump into you."

"I'm afraid it was all my fault," Harold Waithe apologised, there isn't much room here, and, you know, I didn't particularly to meet Mr Todd just at present."

"Or perhaps I shouldn't say that," he added hastily, "or at least not quite as I did ..."

"I expect you see so much of him during the day that you prefer to meet other people in the evening."

"Yes that's it exactly," whispered the University Librarian removing his glasses and twiddling them between his fingers.

"He's very popular," said Minnie.

"Mmh _ er _ yes," said Harold Waithe.

"He certainly knows how to get on with people."

"Yes," said Harold Waithe, "He does have a great deal of talent in that direction but if you'll excuse me I think I really ought to see how my wife is getting along she ought not to be exerting herself too much after that nasty attack of flu you know well thank you so very very much so nice to see you _"

"I don't like him," said Minnie Hodges decisively.


"I can't stand him. Perhaps I shouldn't say it to you, since he is your deputy, but there's something about him that makes me distrust him."

"Well I know he's supposed to be so brilliant and he seems to have made himself virtually indispensable to all sorts of very important people though for the life of me I don't know how since he never actually seems to do anything useful - but I find myself avoiding him whenever I can - not that he isn't always polite ... "

"Too polite."

"Yes that's it exactly but don't let me keep you by telling you my troubles ... "

"I'm always happy to talk to you, Mr Waithe." Minnie wished she dared call him Harold, but somehow the Librarian's nervous politeness kept her at arms' length. There was only one person she could imagine calling him by his Christian name, apart from Mrs Waithe, and she knew what his reaction would be to that. Already, she thought, shuddering inwardly, Rupert Todd would have buttonholed the Bishop, and started calling him Thomas as if they were childhood friends. And the Bishop would have to call Todd Rupert in return.

Harold Waithe was still apologising. Minnie caught the odd phrase: " ... so sorry ... don't want to make your life hideous ... hang my head in shame ... my wife ... thank you so very very much..,

"What do you think of this rape business?" she asked.

"Oh dear," murmured the Librarian, "I don't think I really ought to comment I mean it's not as if it's really any of my business it's not as if I've been here very long ..."

"Only fifteen years," thought Minnie.

"... and I really do feel that I ought to leave local matters to people who live locally and my wife and I haven't actually got any children you know so we're not really involved in the affairs of the school at all all the same it really does seem quite shocking that such things can happen."

"I think," said Minnie, "That everyone is very upset by it, and by the levity with which Mr Thurston treated it."

"Well," murmured Waithe apologetically, "I dare say he means well but sometimes scholars get carried away by theory."

"That's exactly what Mr Todd said," replied Minnie.

"Yes well so sorry but I really must find my wife so nice to have met you," gabbled the Librarian, and vanished.


"Mr Thurston's little speech really put the cat among the pigeons, didn't it?" Minnie observed as she and Andy drove back home.

"The pity is," replied Andy, "That in condemning Thurston's philosophy of authenticity, they rushed in to condemn the alleged rapists whom he chose as an example of his philosophy in action, without knowing, or even caring about the facts of the case."

"You think there's more to it than meets the eye'?" Minnie asked

"Isn't there always?"

Please remember that this story is copyright. See Copyright and Concessions for what uses are permitted.

Chapter 6: Ferreting out

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