The title of this book got my attention. It has a romantic ring to it, and giving it more emotional impetus is the picture on the front of the small boys at play, with a teacher looking on intently, giving his undivided attention. R.F. Delderfield wrote many books, starting after World War I. He was committed to writing 4,000 words a day when he died in 1972, of lung cancer, at age 60.
The critics have tended to give him a go-by throughout his career, as a good “craftsman” and “storyteller” but not much more than that. One critic spoke of Delderfield’s stories as a kind of fantasy, stories that are too good to be true.
“To Serve Them All My Days” is the story of a young Welshman who returns “shell-shocked” from three years of serving in World War I - he was literally hit by a shell that buried him alive and killed all the other soldiers around him. A wise doctor in England sends him to Devon to apply for a teaching job, to have the benefit of the upland air and quietude. The Welshman, David Powlett-Jones, feels himself a poor candidate for the job, in light of his shattered nerves and raw vulnerability. But the headmaster has seen his ex-charges go off and fill the trenches, and then fill the casualty lists, so he has a natural sympathy for Powlett-Jones’ situation. Instead of pretending not to notice David’s shaking hands, he shows him the photos of those other boys who saw conflict so early in life, and didn’t come back. In true British form, the headmaster doesn’t dwell on it, and eagerly flings the window open (to give David a minute to control his emotion), quizzing the students below who are filing back from a cricket match. All is camaraderie, and common sense, and caring. This is where Powlett-Jones has come to rest, and this is where he will mend and rise to fight again, but in a better cause, perhaps.
Delderfield has a good feeling for pace, and for personalities. But he mostly keeps our interest by having Powlett-Jones follow his intuition, based on sympathy, to crack the difficult “nuts” - as those students present themselves. He does make a lot out of class and what people are brought up to, so that his critics can argue that a lot of his assumptions don’t apply any more. Does anyone know what a gentleman is these days, or what the heart of a father entails? At best, Delderfield is passionate on these topics, and if their elucidation are all the laurels he can rest on, people may keep reading him for some time to come.