Last year I read and loved The Boarding-House by William Trevor, a wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, first published in 1965. Ten months on, I’m returning to this writer for another of his early novels, The Old Boys, which came out the previous year in 1964. Like its successor, The Old Boys is a sharply observed ensemble piece featuring a cast of rather idiosyncratic characters – this time, the members of an Old Boys Association for an English public school. In short, the novel explores the longstanding beliefs and rivalries that resurface amongst the men (all in their seventies) when the committee comes to elect a new President. It is a marvellous novel, shot through with a particularly savage streak of humour and some poignancy too. Needless to say, I enjoyed it hugely.
The novel centres on Mr Jaraby, who is eager for the role of President of the Association. On the whole, life for Jaraby has been shaped by his days in the public school system, an environment where bullying and intimidation of the younger, weaker individuals were part and parcel of life. Inspired by Mr Dowse, his mentor and Housemaster, Jaraby spent much of his time at school persecuting his fag, a somewhat awkward young boy named Nox – an experience that Nox, another Old Boy, still remembers to this day.
In Nox’s new life Jaraby was everywhere. It was not the mere fact of receiving a gamma for a piece of English prose that distressed Nox; it was what Jaraby would say to him when Jaraby got to know about it. For somehow Jaraby always did seem to get to know. He knew everything that went on in the House and everything that concerned the boys who belonged to it. What Nox did, on the games field or in class, was inevitably ‘not good enough’. (p. 15)
In spite of the passing of time, Nox remains deeply resentful of his treatment by Jaraby, a point that fuels his determination to block Jaraby’s succession to the presidency, even if this results in the election of a less competent man. In short, Nox wishes to discredit Jaraby (there is some suggestion that the latter frequents brothels), so he hires a private detective, the appropriately names Swingler, to gather evidence of an incriminating nature.
He could not admit to Swingler that he cared little himself for the Association, that if a less able man than Jaraby were chosen it would not matter to him as long as Jaraby was shamed in the process. Some devil within him had urged him to get himself on to the committee, so that he might, by some chance that had not then been apparent, cook Jaraby’s goose. Jaraby was an influence in his life, but he could only confess it to himself. Jaraby was a ghost he had grown sick and tired of, which he could lay only by triumphing in some pettiness. (p. 43)
This all gives rise to some very amusing scenes, particularly when Nox decides to force the issue by tempting Jaraby with a little bait. Much to his annoyance, Jaraby finds himself being stalked by a strange, presumptuous woman who insists on joining him for tea and cakes (‘Shall we gorge ourselves on meringues today?’), all played out through Trevor’s pitch-perfect prose.
The punctilious Jaraby is also experiencing difficulties at home, particularly in relation to his wife, the rather forthright Mrs J. The Jarabys bicker and snipe at each other on a constant basis, mostly over their forty-year-old son, Basil, another former pupil at the school, who has turned out to be a great disappointment to his father. Mrs Jaraby, on the other hand, would like Basil, a rather dubious bird fancier, to come and live at their house, a point she continues to press with her husband at every opportunity.
While Basil has already had a few brushes with the law, Mrs J believes the worst is behind him, and she hopes to welcome her son back into the fold. Mr Jaraby, however, is having none of it, believing his wife to be of unsound mind and in need of psychiatric care. Perversely, it is Mr Jaraby, with his petty prejudices and obsessions, who would probably benefit the most from specialist attention, although both of the Jarabys have their flaws and failings.
Another source of tension in the Jaraby household is their cat, Monmouth – a savage creature loved by Mr J and loathed by his wife. If only Monmouth were not there, then Basil could return home complete with his budgerigars…
Alongside the themes of power, revenge and the resentments we hold on to in life, the novel also explores the nature of ageing, mainly through the portraits of other Old Boys on the Committee. There are touches of humour and poignancy here, a sprinkling of dark comedy alongside the tragedy and sadness.
Mr Cridley and Mr Sole spend their days cutting out newspaper coupons for freebies and no-obligation estimates, many of which they have absolutely no use for, living as they do at the Rimini Hotel. With its cheerless atmosphere and permanent smell of boiling meat, the Rimini (a glorified boarding house catering for the elderly) is presided over by Miss Burdock, a formidable, money-grabbing woman with a penchant for grey clothing. When it transpires that Mr Cridley and Mr Sole have arranged for a central heating salesman to assess the premises, Miss Burdock is most definitely not amused…
‘It is scarcely a month,’ complained Miss Burdock, ‘since those frightful women came here with corsets. And now a man with central heating. You can guess what I am going to say to you, both of you: if there is further trouble I shall be obliged to ask you to leave the Rimini.’
‘A genuine misunderstanding, Miss Burdock, a genuine error.’
‘I could easily fill your rooms. There is a waiting list for the Rimini.’ (pp. 50-51)
The poignancy comes through in the portrait of Mr Turtle, a gentle, lonely Old Boy who is finding it difficult to remember things, particularly in the short-term. In some ways, Mr Turtle would prefer to return to the simplicity of his schooldays, complete with its regular routines and rituals – a point that becomes apparent during the annual school visit for Old Boys’ Day.
A woman in a white overall broke in on his thoughts, pressing a plate of wafer biscuits on him. He sighed and smiled and took one. How nice it would be to hear a bell and run to its summons, to join a queue for milk or cocoa, and later to do prep and wait for another bell that meant the rowdy security of the dormitory. How nice it would be to slip, tired and a little homesick, between the cold sheets. He heard his name called. Somebody gave him a fresh cup of tea and asked him a question he did not understand. (p. 101)
As the narrative plays out, there are one or two shocks for the main players, the Jarabys in particular; but I had better not say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.
The Old Boys is another excellent novel by William Trevor, sharing many similarities with The Boarding-House. Much of the book is written in dialogue, which gives the story a sense of immediacy, almost as if you are watching a play unfold before your eyes.
Although only touched on through memories, the realities of the public school environment are very well portrayed, complete with all their cruelties and insensitivities. It is a world where influence and power over others are all important, dictating the nature of life for the younger, less experienced boys. The only glimmer of hope for these individuals is to wait until they too gain senior status and all the authority this confers. It is clear that Nox was never able to acquire this kind of standing within the school, a point that has left him marked by Jaraby’s sadistic behaviour for most of his adult life.
As a novel, The Old Boys highlights the importance of our formative years, how the things we experience during this time continue to shape our lives well into adulthood. It can be hard to forget the injustices of our childhood, especially if they are never adequately redressed at the time. Trevor explores this theme through the novel with its striking blend of sharpness, dark humour and tragedy.
The Old Boys is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.