Being a Freak Helps

When I was about seven, I was a huge fan of the Narnia books. Apart from all of the things that might be expected to appeal to a young boy — the excitement, adventure and the powerful underlying significance of it all — I was very interested in the clothes worn by the children in the illustrations. Even when they were not dressed in their school uniforms, they wore clothes that looked smart and dignified.

Then one day, I had the opportunity to pass through the wardrobe. I discovered in a second hand shop a complete school uniform in grey tweed-like material: blazer, schoolboy shorts and all, even including a red tie that formed a nice contrast to the grey. When I put it on, I looked just like Peter and Edmund! I proudly donned my new acquisition, and my mother took a photo of me. My primary school didn’t have a uniform at all, but I decided I was going to go to school in my very own forties uniform.

Of course, you know what happened next. I was mercilessly mocked, and the uniform was put away to gather dust. I don’t know what happened to it in the end, but I certainly never wore it again.

I may have put the tweed away, but I never forgot the world of Peter and Edmund, where people dressed respectably instead of slopping around in jeans and T-shirt. The aesthetic appeal of that world became associated with literature from the past in my mind, but also with old boarding schools and universities. I thought I might find it at university, and when that turned out to be filled with jeans wearing, beer drinking people who preferred to discuss football rather than poetry, I thought I might find it in the boarding school where I worked for a time.

But of course, tradition and civilisation do not consist in wearing tweed, smoking a pipe and being a crusty Oxford don. They consist in a living engagement with the best thoughts of the past, and they are open to anyone once the world of the past is offered to them. This can be done as well in a tower block in West London as it can in a country boarding school.

Still, that misfit in the tweed suit was looking for something different. It does help to be a bit of a freak. It’s an antidote to the unthinking acceptance of the standards of the current age, and prepares one to engage with that other country, the past.

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