1282 The reluctant academician

Growing Dumb: An Autobiography of an English Education
by Peter Quartermain

Montreal and Vancouver: Zat-So Productions, 2021. Printed by Lulu.com. Also available in Vancouver through Massy Books and People’s Co-op Books
$37.97 /  9780986759550

Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb

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The most astonishing part of this book is what isn’t there. Oh, there is lots in these memoirs by Peter Quartermain, English professor emeritus at UBC, lots of descriptions of life in wartime England as it impinged on the consciousness of a young schoolboy. There’s descriptions of muddy fields and canal locks and milking cows and getting in trouble and riding a bike. There’s even detailed instructions on how to fill an oil lamp or trim a hedge, not to mention a lingering description of a tapioca ball, along with an account of having his tonsils out.

What emerges from this book, from the dense thicket of its descriptions (a sort of cross between Thomas Hardy and James Joyce, what with its run-on sentences and eccentric punctuation) — what emerges is a picture of a timid little boy, not liking the rules imposed on him, but anxious to follow them lest he get punished. And he is punished occasionally — there’s a caning scene — but there’s a lot more worrying than punishing, unless you count the self-punishing of worrying he’ll be laughed at if he asks a question that reveals his ignorance.

Young Peter Quartermain

He wants to fit in, belong, seen most clearly in an interesting moment in a classroom when the teacher asks the boys what their favourite season is. She says hers is spring, and every little boy after that says spring too, but young Peter thinks what he really likes are the cool, crisp mornings of November. But does he say that? No, he’s not even sure he believes that, or he comes to doubt himself by the time it comes round to his turn, so what does he say? Spring! Ah, well, at least he has let the world know now that he prefers autumn. (It makes the reviewer think he should write a book called Things I Should Have Said, but I digress.)

That classroom scene is one of the few in the book. Though the setting is mostly Brewood School in rural England, most of the action takes place outdoors or in the dorms or at the family’s home or on their farm. This is the story of a little boy who seems to care little for the classroom — it’s the place after all where he gets tortured with Mental Arithmetic or bullied by angry teachers throwing chalk and erasers. Much better to be wandering in the fields, digging up a giant swede (something like a turnip) or doing chores on the farm, gathering eggs from the chickens (except of course the time the rooster attacks) and herding the cows, or playing conkers (a game using horse chestnuts) or working on his stamp collection or perhaps singing or doing art (art he likes because it is free of rules and bossiness).

Awards Day at Brewood School, Staffordshire, where Peter Quartermain was a Knightley boarder from 1940 to 1952. Quartermain (centre) holds the largest cup

The one thing he doesn’t do is read. It dawns on the reader eventually that though this is the story of a little boy who grew up to be an English professor, there’s hardly a word in it about literature. Someone gives him Oliver Twist to read, but he finds it too hard. That’s when he’s very young, so you think, okay, it’s too early for literature, but in his teens his main comment about reading is that he found Balzac too hard. Mostly he’s outdoors messing around — like a typical young boy, except you expect someone who’s going to become a professor or a writer to be different from the typical young boy, to be bookish.

Peter Quartermain, 2013

In the Preface he says he was a bookish kid, but this whole book belies it. The most telling incident in the whole book comes at the end, when a new English teacher asks the boys to write down the most interesting book they know. What did young Peter write? He doesn’t tell us. What he does tell us is that the teacher later summoned a few of the boys and told them they might have promising futures in English. The teacher does not summon Peter; he feels excluded, jealous — and as a result dedicates himself to English? No, there is no sign of that.

If you read these memoirs without knowing that the author went on to become a respected English professor, you might think, Ah, this young boy probably became a farmer. Or maybe a curate, a church official, because the one thing we do see him come to like is reading the Scripture lesson in church. Or maybe an antiquarian collector: he does like collecting things, not just stamps, but coins, bits of shrapnel, propaganda leaflets — but even those he doesn’t read; they are just souvenirs of the war.

Peter Quartermain

The war is a distant presence in the book. There’s time sleeping in an air raid shelter, and there’s the boy who joins the navy and is torpedoed at sea, and there are shortages and rationing (but that’s more difficult after the war) and learning to ingratiate yourself with the grocers, and there are blackouts, and his father is a fire warden, but mostly the war is far away. Much closer is the fear of being laughed at, the snobbery and picking on certain kids (which he’s ashamed to have taken part in now, but that was perhaps part of fitting in), and in general a sense of bewilderment.

There was his best friend who seemed much less bewildered, who wasn’t afraid to reveal his ignorance by asking questions — and who ended up killing himself. Hmm. Young Peter envied him, but there’s no sign that he became like him during his time at school. Maybe the transformation took place at university, but the book ends before then with him being comforted over the loss of his friend, but without any account of how the timid little boy who seems devoted to farmwork and messing around ends up becoming a professor. Maybe there will be a sequel.

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Sheldon Goldfarb. Photo by Graeme Danko

Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (Heritage House, 2017), reviewed here by Herbert Rosengarten. He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery, Remember, Remember (Bristol: UKA Press), was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. His latest book, Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories (London: MX Publishing, 2019), was reviewed here by Patrick McDonagh. Originally from Montreal, Sheldon has a history degree from McGill University, a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and two degrees from the University of British Columbia: a PhD in English and a master’s degree in archival studies. Editor’s note: Sheldon Goldfarb’s recent reviews include books by Katherine Bowers & Kate HollandP.W. BridgmanGeorge BoweringJaime SmithJesse DonaldsonNorman RavvinGeorge L. PálNicholas Bradley, and Sherrill Grace.

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