Review: “Between Boy and Man” by Peter Farquhar
I recently had the pleasure and privilege of reading “Between Boy and Man”, the first novel (of three) by the late Peter Farquhar.
Published by AuthorHouse in 2010, it tells a contemporary story set in a co-ed public boarding school, giving the perspectives of some staff and 6th form pupils preparing for interviews at Cambridge. The plot concerns a vindictive and false allegation of sexual abuse made by one of these teenagers against a well-respected and loved chaplain and football coach, John Donaldson, aka “Rev D”, and the effects of this accusation.
This is a powerful, well-written and well-plotted book, with lively and frank dialogue, and comic elements in among the serious points. Although often sad, it is not grim. It is explicitly and eloquently Christian in its message of God’s presence in the darkness, and His forgiveness, but a forgiveness that needs to be accepted.
Its presentation of sexual ethics, while traditional, is not naïve. For example, a sympathetically-portrayed Christian boy has had a one-night stand, which he regrets and repents and from which he moves on.
A much larger element is homosexuality. Rev D is a celibate gay man, who is frequently physically attracted to the young men he is counselling or training, but does (almost) nothing about it. As a result of the accusation, he of course suffers in a number of ways, including homophobic taunts in the street.
The cover reproduces a famous, although unfamiliar to me, 17th-century painting, “The Arcadian Shepherds” by Nicolas Poussin. Its relevance is obscure for a long time, but then during his darkest days, Rev D visits the National Gallery and meditates thoughtfully and powerfully on life, faith and despair in the light of this and other paintings. Throughout the book his spiritual experiences and exercises are emphasised.
The author was a teacher and lecturer in English literature for many years. Discussions of classical literature (as well as art and music) feature heavily in the book, including in the accounts of the university interviews, and the portrayal of the (fictional) school is plainly partly autobiographical and apparently highly authentic.
I enjoyed this book as a story (although I could have done with a bit more about the characters’ immediate reactions to the denouement), and when I’ve read a few others of the huge pile awaiting me, I’d like to read Mr Farquhar’s other works.
“Between Boy and Man” also has a wider resonance for me for two reasons.
First, it resonates with current concerns about sexual abuse and safeguarding procedures and also has a lot to say about education. On this last point, the author has strong views about politically correct, tick-boxing culture and computerisation. With some of these one may sympathise, although it’s a bit extreme for teachers to object to submitting reports on computer because they prefer to handwrite them. The overwhelming financial and educational privilege of most of the characters grates on a leftwinger like myself.
Today we know that church leaders and teachers have seriously abused children and teenagers in residential institutions, and this has been covered up. It is not inappropriate for readers to be reminded that, even so, some accusations may be malicious and wrong. (The boy making the accusation is portrayed with complexity and some sympathy.) However, although the reader can and does sympathise greatly with Rev D, I was sometimes a little uneasy. The author doesn’t fully acknowledge which of his actions were in fact unwise and inappropriate. As the loathsome Deputy Headteacher points out, he did breach one of the school’s new pettifogging rules, and if he hadn’t done so, he wouldn’t have been in trouble.
Also, the loathsome Deputy is a woman. The school is co-ed, but probably only recently, and it is understandable that the majority of the major characters are male. But although there are a number of likable female characters (Priscilla and Olivia), there seem to be a disproportionate number of unpleasant women and girls. The satire of the horribly skewed and unfair university interview with an “earth mother” (castigating the male applicant who doesn’t accept Jane Austen’s supposed lesbianism) fell flat for me.
The second thing to say about the book is much sadder. Peter Farquhar died in 2015. His obituary in the Guardian is here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/nov/18/peter-farquhar-obituary.
Earlier this year, his friend Ben Field was convicted of his murder, which followed a particularly cruel and long-drawn-out process of deception and manipulation.
It is impossible to tell how much of John Donaldson’s loneliness and vulnerability were also shared by his creator.
Love from the PPI Blogger
PS There will be no post on 18th or 25th October, as the Blogger is taking part in an exciting church-sponsored trip to Uganda. Doubtless more details will follow in due course!