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Plum and Mike, Jan and Edward pay Tribute to Dulwich

by Murray Hedgcock

Dulwich College has published a new and definitive history of the school. Naturally the Society arrived in strength to celebrate the launch

Author Jan Piggott at the centre of a throng of admiring Wodehouseans Photograph with kind permission of the Governors of Dulwich College

Dulwich College meant so much to Plum that it was highly appropriate, and especially cheering to the Wodehouseans present, that the launch of Jan Piggott’s splendid new history of the school should be marked by a reading from Psmith in the City.

This, Jan declared, was the epitome of an Old Alleynian’s feeling for his schooldays. Sir Edward Cazalet (despite having gone to Bertie Wooster’s old school rather than to Plum’s) was invited to read the passage.

All buffs know it – the melancholy tale of Mike Jackson, briefly escaping the first night at his bleak lodgings in the big city, strolling to the nearby school to sit by the sports fields, and muse sadly on the uncertain world that lay ahead, and the certainty that his own school would wonder what had happened to him. This begins:

“Mike wandered out of the house. A few steps took him to the railings that bounded the College grounds. It was late August, and the evenings had begun to close in. The cricket-field looked very cool and spacious in the dim light, with the school buildings looming vague and shadowy through the slight mist. The little gate by the railway bridge was not locked. He went in …”

Sadly, that little gate, recorded in Psmith in the City in 1910, is now locked as a security measure. But it is still there – a link to Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, who joined Dulwich in 1894 as a 12-year-old.

It was a cheery early Summer evening on June 11 when 250 Old Alleynians and others gathered at the College for the book launch (the guest-list actually said it was September 11, but we who were present knew better).

The Master, Graham Able, set the tone of the evening by recording Jan Piggott’s announcement that in his research he had detected a number of inaccuracies in earlier histories of the College.

“Now any errors or omissions are of course due to Jan”, the Master announced, to the mischievous pleasure of the author’s many friends.

The Chairman of the Governors, Lord George, apologised for his late arrival, blaming this on a late night sitting as he read the book, finding it enthralling. (No doubt he had enjoyed the chance to immerse himself in school memories, instead of staying up to worry about interest rates, the credit crunch etc, as he would have done in his recent role as Governor of the Bank of England.)

Jan Piggott suggested it had been a brave decision by the College to entrust him with the role of historian, “as for much of my time here, my responsibility has been in the world of fiction”. (Jan was Head of English for ten years before becoming Keeper of the Archives, retiring in 2006.)

The commission had been offered despite an understanding that he possessed certain blind spots: “Why should it be believed that we were put on the earth to play with a ball? I had to ask a colleague if a cricket team consisted of eleven men or of fifteen.”

Referring to the chequered early days, and some later ones, of the College, he quoted an early 19th Century reference to it and its inadequate masters as “a great palace of drones”.

(Thought: is this where PGW’s home-away-from-home for idle young men derived its name?)

Jan spoke of Plum’s happy memories of his schooldays, and of his comment that Dulwich “seemed to turn out such an awfully nice type”.

The evening was enlivened by a dramatic presentation of Edward Alleyn’s famous address in honour of James I at a City of London pageant in 1604. The school’s founder was represented in costume, and masterly fashion, by the Director of Drama, Peter Jolly.

The school song was rendered in surprisingly firm voice by a goodly number of those present (offering an easy means of deciding who were OAs, and who did not have that good fortune).

This sparked to a quick poll of our Wodehouse group (none being an Old Alleynian) as to what school songs had enlivened their youthful days.

The most immediate response came from the Editor of Wooster Sauce, who sang a rather bibulous number which seemed highly unlikely to have been an approved school song, even in the post-Prohibition euphoria of her native land.

The Membership Secretary trilled in notably more restrained fashion a much more lofty song stemming from her schooldays. Negotiations are under way to have both melodies performed at the Society’s October dinner …

Jan Piggott has done a marvellous job with his comprehensive and pleasingly produced record of the College, featuring famous names from its distant and more recent past, with proper prominence given to PGW.

And if there is in 2008 a great deal about Dulwich that Plum would recognise and love just as much as ever, then certain developments would surely astonish him, for example the College’s three sites in mainland China. Dulwich, once in the doldrums, moves forward today with the modern world.

Dulwich College - A History 1616-2008. By Jan Piggott. Dulwich College Enterprises. £24.