(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Tom Crick, fifty-two years old, has been history master for some thirty years in a private secondary school in Greenwich, a point of zero degrees longitude, in a sense the place where, in a world that sets its clocks according to Greenwich Mean Time, time begins. Tom’s wife, Mary, also in her early fifties, has been married to Tom for as long as he has been teaching. Until shortly before the immediate action of the story, she has been working with the elderly in a home. She has given up that job.

The students in Tom’s school have grown increasingly scientifically oriented, and the headmaster, Lewis Scott, himself a physicist, has little sympathy for Tom’s subject, a fact that he in no way masks. One of Tom’s students, Price, an intelligent sixteen-year-old whose father is a mechanic, presses Tom with questions about the relevance of learning about such historical events as the French Revolution. The youth’s skepticism causes Tom to change his teaching approach from one of presenting historical facts to one that involves his telling tales drawn from his own recollection. By doing so, he makes himself a part of the history he is teaching, relating his tales to local history and genealogy.

The headmaster has no sympathy for Tom’s new approach, even though it rekindles student interest in history. The headmaster tries to entice Tom into taking an early retirement at a decent pension. Tom resists because his leaving would mean that the History Department would cease to exist and history would simply be combined with the broader area of General Studies.

Finally, Tom’s hand is forced because his wife is arrested for stealing a baby from a shopping cart outside a market. She testifies that God told her to do it. The publicity that attends her arrest reflects badly on the school, and Tom is told that he now must go into retirement. He is given no alternative.

This is the bare frame of a story that becomes extremely complicated and convoluted. Tom uses his impending forced retirement as an excuse to unfold an...

(The entire section is 843 words.)