Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The glory is departed

Boarzell School in Sussex where Mr Dumbreck taught me English in 1961

I had a terrific English teacher when I was 12 called Mr Dumbreck and were he here today he would strike a big red pencil through that word “terrific”, on the grounds of being a cliché, and furthermore terrific means inducing terror. Another rule for our English compositions was that no sentence was to begin either with the word “it” or the word “suddenly”.

I want to tell you about my swotty boy moment. One day the word “hectic” cropped up and Mr Dumbreck asked us for examples of how it might be used. Up I piped with “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red”, a line from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, which we had recently been reading in class. Mr Dumbreck heaped praise on me for quoting both correctly and appositely, and even after all these years the memory calls up a glow of satisfaction. Lindsay by the bye tells me that at her school quoting Shelley wasn't considered comme il faut, and would quite likely have earnt me a whack on the back of the head with a pencil box.

Mr Dumbreck and the Fifth Form room. The events related here took place in the Sixth Form room next door, but no photo is available.  
All photos courtesy of Michael Salmony

Whenever I think of Mr Dumbreck the phrase “Ichabod, the glory is departed” comes to mind. It's an essay he read to us about a hat box festooned with luggage labels. You have to be as old as I am to remember what this meant. The hat box is sent away for a lock repair and when it comes back it's been steam cleaned, and the lovingly preserved collection of labels has vanished. I've gone looking for this essay, which turns out to be by Max Beerbohm, and after fifty-four years I've just read it again. I see the title is simply “Ichabod”, the phrase “the glory is departed” occuring only at the very end. I imagine Mr Dumbreck read us this verse from the Old Testament: “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.” He was a brilliant teacher. He taught us art too. We weren't allowed erasers, and had to ask to borrow his bungy. This was occasionally permitted but normally he would claim to have lost it.

It's hard to say why I've started reminiscing about Mr Dumbreck. My age you will say. But I think I can trace it back four years when I read PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley and was startled to come across this sentence: “Suddenly Mrs Reynolds was with them.” Proof that PD James had not attended Mr Dumbreck’s lessons, and considering that she was writing a Jane Austen sequel, very bad; for Austen, though she used the word “suddenly” about 50 times in her novels, never once began a sentence with it. I know this because I have the internet. Mr Dumbreck knew it in his bones.

Finally, in a couple of hours we in Cork Astronomy Club will celebrate the centennial of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which prompts me to ponder the relativity of time. From leaving Boarzell in 1961, to 1972 the year my mother died and I moved to York, was 11 years, and appears to me like half a lifetime. From leaving York to now is nearly 11 years, and it seems like yesterday.

Note : For a read-out of every sentence in which Jane Austen used the word “suddenly”, all you need is this website and about eight seconds of your time. The Biblical quotation is 1 Samuel 4:21 in King James version.


  1. Hi Peter

    Very much enjoyed your account of Dumbreck!

    I was always been accused of using malapropisms by him, so much so that he took me and a few other lads to see the play (The Rivals) in London. I have failed him dismally as far as English usage goes, but still enjoyed his teaching

    I do remember the play being great fun!

    John Steel

  2. Hi Peter,
    I started at Boarzell in 1959 so you must have been one of the seniors that threw mud at the juniors in the wood! I too am grateful to RD because not only did he teach me grammar to which I endeavour to adhere to this day but more importantly he managed to keep Tonbridge waiting till I was nearly 14 so that I had a chance of passing common entrance. Thankfully, I did and had a fantastic time there.
    Bernard Farrant

  3. Terrific post, and how nice to see the old place. I remember Ferrier practising his long irons beneath that tree, and later there was a cricket ball on a rope hanging from a branch. I went to see Dumbreck in a Ticehurst old people's home not long before he died, at the suggestion of another much younger Boarzellian, Jeremy Howard. We thought he might appreciate the chance to reminisce, but found him snobbish, bitchy and primarily interested in complaining about the food and his fellow inmates. I wished I hadn't bothered. Would he have allowed sentences beginning with finally? Adam Ruck

  4. Dear Adam Ruck
    Thanks for this and it was a nice thought to visit Mr Dumbreck but I almost wish you hasn’t told me this as it's revealed one of my icons to have had feet of clay. Doubtless he would have told us that this expression derives from the book of Daniel and the dream of Nebuchadnezzar where he beheld a great image “His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.” Peter