It had to happen, I suppose. And I don't mind that it has. It's just that, like almost everything these days, I didn't see it coming.

Before I took to writing for a living I taught English. I worked at several schools in different countries and in almost all of them there was a Mr Chips. He'd been at the school since Eve went fruit-picking.

Power in schools used to be measured in keys and Mr Chips' ring of keys was like a medieval jailer's. It outdid the caretaker's. And of course it outdid the key rings of the keen young principal and his earnest deputy, both of whom Mr Chips viewed with a scorn he made no effort to disguise. They in turn viewed him with a distaste that they made every effort to disguise.

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Mr Chips was a source of institutional knowledge, an anchor in the shifting seas of educational theory, a bulwark against the raging storms of relativism, a corrective to the latest folderol, and nearly always a thumping bore. He was safe to talk to only in a circular room. Anywhere else he'd corner you.

In the classroom, his party piece was the generational gambit, and you had to admit he'd earned the right to it. "Boy," he'd boom to some quivering fresh-faced 12-year-old, "your father couldn't do quadratics either."

The educational implication of this can be expressed mathematically: son of X = X. In other words it isn't that the apple doesn't roll far from the tree, but rather that the apple is doomed to become the tree. We are all aboard a genetic train with a known destination and there is no getting off. Struggle is futile, ambition folly. The world may spin but it stays in the same place.

This was the way of things according to Mr Chips. Mr Chips, in short, was a fatalist, an inevitablist, a defeatist. In a better world he'd be allowed nowhere near the young, because he'd crush their hopes beneath the road roller of his cynicism.

Except of course that he did no such thing. The young are impervious to the preaching of us ancients. We come from a different battered planet, a weary one that holds no interest or excitement for the young. The planet they inhabit is a world new-minted and fresh with possibility. The old can gain no entry there, our words have no effect.

So Mr Chips, for all his hard-earned cynicism, for all his weight of keys, was impotent. The power lay with the young. It always did and always will. Just thank the lord they never realise it till it's too late and there's another generation nudging them aside.

Now, recently I was asked to do a little tutoring at a school I used to teach at, working one-to-one with kids who like to write. I sat down with the first of them a few weeks back. "You taught my dad," he said.

"Oh bloody hell," I said. "You're joking." The kid laughed.

When he told me his father's name I remembered him well, a softly spoken lad, thoughtful, civil, bright and destined to thrive. When last I 'd seen him he'd been 17. How recently that seemed. But now he was a father, and here in front of me his first-born son. That son liked to write poetry and showed me some. In return I gave him Auden. I wanted him to see what could be done with a simple ballad structure and a gift for metaphor.


As I walked out one evening
Walking down Bristol Street
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

The lad proved as quick as you could wish, immediately catching the implications of the image.

In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away
And time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today….
Oh plunge your hands in water
Plunge them in up to the wrists
Stare stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.
The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed
And a crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

That last verse in particular is a test. If a child gurgles with the pleasure of it he'll do well. I looked at the boy to see if the words had struck home. "Dad said you'd do Auden," he said.

And thus one becomes Mr Chips.