In Britain, the late 1940’s and early 50’s were probably the hardest years of the 20th century. For millions of people, the postwar decade was one of icy nights in gaslit rooms, interminable queues, and meals composed of whale fat and tinned beef—the comically vile ingredients of a serious sacrifice that particular generation is unlikely to forget. While rationing continued, so did the Ministry of Food with its raft of regulations enforceable in the courts. For years after the war, “snoopers” were officially encouraged to report anyone suspected of the Babylonian luxury of possessing adequate quantities of butter, sugar, or tea. Most middle-class homes lacked both a refrigerator and a furnace, instead relying on an outdoor window ledge and a two-bar electric fire that gave off as much heat as a 60-watt light bulb. For many, unrepaired bomb damage remained a way of life throughout the 1950’s. You could walk down almost any British city street and see at least one home with a tarpaulin stretched over its missing roof, and quite often at night these kept up a kind of demented beat as they flapped wildly in the wind.
One of the few consolations of the 50’s, and a rallying point even for many nonsporting Britons, was the performance of the English national cricket team, and in particular of its wicketkeeper and star turn Godfrey Evans. Evans was incredible. At a time of such unrelenting austerity, he brought a touch of the exotic to British life. A comically rather squat, red-cheeked figure, on the field Evans seemed to be in perpetual motion, often bringing off improbable catches, after which he typically threw in a somersault or two, before bouncing up with his habitual wide grin. Socially, too, he was what we Brits euphemistically call “a character.” Whether bustling in and out of night clubs, or squiring his latest (and always impossibly glamorous) companion to some glittering society event, Evans remained the swashbuckling life and soul of the party—as one newspaper remarked, “a sort of cross between Falstaff and Errol Flynn,” if such a thing can be imagined. In 1953, probably Evans’ greatest year as a cricketer, he earned a basic salary of £400 (roughly $12,000 in today’s money) for his professional services for club and country. Now married with a small son, he immediately decided to put down £200 of this as a deposit on a Rolls-Royce. “Good for morale,” he told me years later, when I came to write his biography. Several of Evans’ surviving England colleagues fondly remembered his unquenchable optimism even when in the tightest corner. One of them remarked, “Over time, he converted most of the team to his own way of looking at things,” before cautioning against measuring the Evans legacy merely by statistics. “His real value was how he inspired you to literally never give up.”
In the 1920’s and 30’s, Britain was not troubled, as she was later, by her various child-protection agencies. Had she been, the young Godfrey Evans might well have been thought worthy of concern. His mother died when he was two, and his father, an engineer, spent much of his professional life overseas. At the age of four, Evans was sent to an all-male English boarding school. He would long remember his first sight, from the top of its mile-long approach avenue, of the school’s imposing late-16th-century façade, with its pale-green domes topped by golden eagles. It must have been a daunting prospect, and all the more so as family circumstances meant that he was rarely to leave the premises for the next 12 years. Such holidays as he enjoyed were spent in the company of an unmarried uncle, a vicar, who lived nearby. Evans eventually emerged in the depths of the Depression, leaving him with little opportunity but to join the army. He served with distinction throughout World War II, which at one stage saw him organize cricket games for the troops on the same Normandy beaches where their comrades had struggled ashore a few weeks earlier on D-Day. He was twice Mentioned in Dispatches for conspicuous bravery. In May 1946, wearing his Demob suit and clutching a £5 military gratuity—pretty much his only worldly possessions at the time—Evans reported for a trial at his local cricket club in England. Immediately recognized as a star, he played the game at the highest level for the next 15 years, at which point he took over the management of a working man’s pub in the English midlands—“not a bad life,” Evans told me, “even if I drank the profits.”
If you were to look for a theme in Godfrey Evans’ life, it might be that he had spent the great majority of his time in predominantly male company. Call me slow (many have), but I noticed this fact even when writing his book. In fact, I put it to him. “Well, old boy, you play the cards you’re given,” he said, with complete equanimity. Without descending too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, I can say with conviction that Evans was robustly heterosexual, that he was a “man’s man” in the most positive sense of the phrase, and that all the available evidence is that he consistently treated the fairer sex with a winning combination of intellectual respect and roguish charm. One lady told me that Evans’ great skill was that he had always paid a woman the compliment of “actually listening to her, which was something of a novelty in those days.” Another female companion remembered dining with Evans in a fashionable London restaurant. “People would approach him in the middle of a meal with that half-cheesy, half apologetic grin that meant they wanted an autograph, if not something more. I seem to remember there was also a procession of girls slipping him notes, some of which I saw, with quite complicated messages like “My parents are in the country—ring before 10:30.” In between dealing with the interruptions, Evans was “very solicitous” to his companion, asking what she planned to do with her life and what she thought of various issues. “It was heady,” she recalled. More than one woman told me, in so many words, that Evans had been the love of her life, and that he had known just how to treat her in every situation. This was not a man, in short, whose same-sex schooling and early life would appear to have resulted in his growing up emotionally stunted.
It may with justice be said that Godfrey Evans was a remarkable specimen of a man, a fact I kept firmly in mind when, at the age of about 40, I found myself writing his life story. For a year or two, we had lunch on a weekly basis; the gangling 12-year-old schoolboy still dwelling inside me did his best to ruin my appetite with his twittering nervousness, but we made it, and I did not leave unregistered a note of thanks that my own father, who shared my extravagant passion for cricket if not for the inky profession, should have been able to join us on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion. Like most people who met him, I could only admire Evans’ essential resilience and vitality in every situation. His optimism was an engine that never stopped ticking. He was not a martyr to false modesty. Quite early on in the process, I learned the salutary lesson that temperamentally I was no Godfrey Evans, and that his self-confidence wasn’t a trivial or peripheral quality. Rather, it was the key ingredient of an approach to life that had carried him from an apparently Dickensian childhood to the top, and that, in common with other lesser mortals, I could only feebly approximate. (He may have been rather better than me at cricket, too.)
But for all our differences, Evans and I shared at least one key experience: the male English boarding school. He went off at four, and I waited until the relatively advanced age of seven-and-a-half. A world war separated our childhoods. But in most of the fundamentals the regime I knew in the 1950’s and 60’s was identical to the one Godfrey lived through in the 1920’s and 30’s. My own school had 109 boys and an all-male staff of a dozen gowned teachers, whom we addressed as “Sir.” At least six of them had taught my father at the same establishment 30 years earlier. The headmaster, Mr. Gervis, was rumored to have joined the faculty in the year 1899, which, if true, would have placed him in his mid-80’s. He had never married. He had a pale, deeply lined face, sunken eyes, and a way of silently appraising you like that of an iguana reposing on a rock. I have a distinct memory of his reaction to me as I once walked around attempting to clench a cardboard cutout mustache (included in the sleeve of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) under my nose, which must have been the summer of 1967. Mr. Gervis, it’s fair to say, was not a fan of rock music, one of only several modern developments from which he withheld favor. Among his other vocal prejudices was an aversion both to “yobs” (or any ill-bred person) and to “girls,” though this was not, I think, a “sexist” attitude in the sense we might understand it today. Rather, it was an appreciation—actually, a conviction—that young boys and young girls should develop along separate, if parallel lines: Each would learn the value of patriotism, dedication to a cause, devotion to duty, and service to others, and each would pursue his or her own daily regime. Coeducation was a lost cause, he told me some years later, because he thought there were too many things in the curriculum that were “an unbecoming occupation for one or other” of the sexes.
Within his social sphere, the women Mr. Gervis most liked seemed to fall roughly into two categories. There were the more exotic of the boys’ mothers, who typically appeared for Speech Day dressed in a jaunty Tyrolean hat, and whom he treated with a mixture of elaborate courtesy and a joshing affection that suggested there was more to him than the emotionally rigid figure he presented. It’s possible the ladies offered a welcome touch of triviality. And there were the younger girls, perhaps someone’s teenaged sister, in whom I saw him take a deep and sustained interest that went well beyond the demands of protocol. He was someone who could, and would, make a shy child feel intelligent or a modest one feel she could have a worthwhile career. In later years, he took unfeigned pride in the fact that he had once “had a few quiet words of guidance” with an unassuming young girl who had gone on to become a much-quoted member of the Labour government Cabinet. Mr. Gervis always insisted that he opposed coeducation not from a position of male superiority, but from concern that promiscuous mingling of the sexes at an impressionable age could fatally alter the “special qualities that men and women bring, to no one’s true benefit.” I feel he would have actively endorsed almost any career choice by a woman except the armed forces, a traditional calling for boys at our school, of which the Honour Board in chapel stood as a daily, poignant reminder.
It’s worth dwelling for a moment on exactly what, some years later, Mr. Gervis (we never knew if he had a Christian name) told me he saw as the lifelong benefits of a single-sex education.
“You should let children be themselves,” he announced, when I interviewed him for a small book of school reminiscences in the 1980’s. By that time, Mr. Gervis must have been in his mid-90’s. Now finally retired, he was a little heavier, a little more lined, and considerably more relaxed than the Spartan figure who had ruled over us with such unflinching authority. His mind was as sharp as ever. “If you mix the sexes together in that sort of environment, you put pressure on both of them to try and impress each other. It’s a happy fact of life that most little boys have interests distinct from those of most little girls, and it seems patently true that everyone gains from allowing those interests to develop as nature intended for a few years. It’s not a question of boys being better or worse than girls. They’re just different. Anyone who’s actually worked with children for more than about ten minutes knows that they generally have a certain core personality, and that it’s no good you trying to twist that into something else. As a teacher, your job is to foster the child. You lay down the guardrails that define the limits of acceptable behavior, and within those you let him get on with it. It’s as plain as that, although most of the so-called experts seem completely baffled by the fact.” The smiling reserve with which he spoke commanded as much respect as the more austere tone I remembered from my school days.
You could say that this was all well and good in theory, but over 50 years Mr. Gervis practiced what he preached, actively building and maintaining a school where by and large everything seemed to run like a well-oiled machine: orderly, efficiently, and with remarkably few signs of protest or distress. It’s true that our meals did not contain an abundance of hamburgers, pizza, and chemical-laden soda, but did include generous amounts of fresh fruit, vegetables, and milk, and we were not encouraged to thrill to a diet of mindless carnage on television. Nor were we spared the discipline of eight or ten hours per day of steady work. At the age of seven, every child in the school was studying Latin and Greek, and engaged in a close textual study of the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. There were no such devices as pocket calculators or computers in math class, nor did we miss them. The greatest academic scandal I can recall in my time at the school came when a boy of about 10 or 11 applied to study Thucydides instead of 20th-century history, on the grounds that the former “teaches you everything you want to know about international relations.” Yes, there were those of us who lagged behind the intellectual pace, but overall the atmosphere was bracing. The special character most boys developed was one of a total and unrelenting devotion to knowledge, a virtue that lost nothing through being acquired in an all-male setting.
Boyhood half a century ago in an English boarding school was not always an idyll. But there was a bedrock culture of excellence that showed itself daily, in a variety of ways. I’m not guilty of softening hard memories with happy stories when I say I think of it as a time of real challenge and excitement, if one not untinged with some of the petty conformism one has to expect in that sort of environment. I’ve kept in touch with about a dozen of my contemporaries. Now in their late middle age, it is fair to say they possess certain common characteristics, including what sociologists call an “achievement orientation,” resilience, kindness, a responsible, caring attitude to others, and above all a belief in the importance of self-help. Not long ago, I sat with one of these men, himself a teacher, in the London public hospital ward where he lay dying of cancer. As usual in these situations, a deafeningly loud communal television was playing in a corner of the room. After a while, we gave up the unequal struggle and turned our attention to the screen. As we watched, an interminable soap opera finally ended, and one advertisement after another scrolled across the tube: Do you or someone you know suffer from depression? . . . Our law office can obtain for you what is rightfully yours . . . Today, an estimated 22 million Britons struggle with issues of low self-esteem. After a bit more of this, my friend turned away, smiled at me, and slowly shook his head. In that simple and eloquent gesture, completely free of self-pity, I understood him to say, “With all their advantages, how have so many people managed to get in this state?”
It all began with the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, this epidemic of emotional incontinence among British males. Or at least that’s when a worldwide television audience first came to see the spectacle of many tens of thousands of Britons, mainly in their 20’s or younger, apparently unable to gaze down at a cheap bunch of decaying roses or a teddy bear heaped with many others at the gates of a royal palace without feeling the need to burst profusely into tears. Your average Chronicles reader (in the improbable event that such a person exists) would be unlikely to do this, I feel. But much of the rest of the Western world seems not just a bit emotional these days, but positively intoxicated with self-expression. Politicians, sportsmen, even on occasion our brave men in uniform—they’re all at it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that each and every one of these cases of public effusion is down to the individual in question having missed out on the fruits of a single-sex education. Among other guilty parties, there’s a whole generation of Western psychoanalytical theory out there that taught us that repressing emotion is dangerous and will only find a release in some other, harmful way. But the next time a middle-aged male breaks down on the public airwaves while recounting the sorry tale of his childhood abuse or the trauma of an unsatisfactory marriage, it would be interesting to know if he, too, enjoyed several formative years under Mr. Gervis’s aegis, or at least an equivalent regime. Somehow I doubt it.
Twice a year, the old school sends me a thick magazine full of news of its alumni. It’s in the nature of these things to dwell on the success stories, and not on items along the lines of an old boy running amok with an assault rifle in his local shopping center. But even allowing for any discreet editing, it’s still an impressive roll call, in terms not only of material success but of service to the wider community. There are many of my contemporaries, I learn, who work in a variety of ways in the most indigent parts of the world, and more than one who has given his life while doing so. Once again, I understand that an essentially Victorian, British male boarding-school education isn’t necessarily the only means to a fulfilling career. But it does seem that a self-denying childhood may not be the worst prelude to a life that “serves not only yourself but other people,” as Mr. Gervis always impressed upon us as an ideal. Fifty years later, I’m ever more grateful to him.