I thought he was referring to his own experience. His poems about teaching show the class as a savage environment where the teacher is forced to assume a ridiculous fiesta mask in order to survive. The class, however, is determined to see through the mask and start kicking it to pieces. The headmaster is no help. He is a bore and hypocrite who gets his own poem, ‘Headmaster: Modern Style’. Head and Assistant Head form a grotesque comic couple in the poem. Having dealt satirically with the managerial headmaster in the first seven parts of the poem Bell moves on to the deputy:
Let’s turn aside
As Augustine might turn from a chapter on pride and concupiscence,
And consider poor Joe, Conk’s deputy.
Joe does administration. It does for him. He’s done by it.
Nothing comes right. He mutters about it.
Prometheus-Conk goes free. Joe gets the vultures.
Chief eunuch of the stock-room! Emperor of pen-nibs –
Footprints that vanish in the snow from Moscow!...
This is a caricature school, a burlesque, opera buffo of the kind Martin enjoyed in his capacity as opera critic of Queen and Harper’s Bazaar, but it does pick up something about the nature of institutional life spent with growing boys and administrative pettiness.
Real schools are not made up entirely of sadistic children, managerial grandstanding headmasters and flustered administrators. School teachers can be heroic hard-working figures who face difficult classes and exhausting demands. Today they are under increasing pressure to achieve results, not always in favourable conditions.
Caricature the image may be, but the caricature is not without basis. The first enemy of poetry in the Bell view, is, absolute authority and what is more, an authority with the wrong values. To a schoolboy growing up in the Twenties and Thirties that authority represented the injustices of society at large. The spell in the army in combat will only have reinforced them. The poet in those circumstances acts as a kind of clown in the way the Marx Brothers did, as did Bell in some of his own poetry. Authority was against the freedom of the spirit. Poetry was the definition of freedom and independence of the spirit. School and poetry were, at the least, uneasy bedfellows. There is undoubtedly a sentimental and romantic element in this, but it cannot be entirely forgotten, even as we teach. Prometheus is somewhere at the bottom of this.