I believe that Dante knew what he was talking about when he wrote these words in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Not, perhaps, a happy thought, but insightful when I think of my formative years: A world of great-aunts, large matrons, frightful teachers and disappointed parents climaxing in a pile of uncertainty mixed with a smidgen of misgiving. In other words, a shambolic mess.
Today, my only fears centre around strong-willed women with large forearms and cats, specifically my wife’s, Pericles and Bertram. To me, P and B remind me of the Welsh; I am not sure what they are doing here, nor can I understand them.
I recall sitting on a train in Wales, listening to a conductor shout out the names of towns that had no less than 30 letters and sometimes more than a hundred. I was finally thrown off at a village whose name I can only describe as someone breaking wind, ending with an ode to the diphthong.
It was a truly miserable experience, made worse by townspeople falling into a melancholic lowing whenever I asked a question. I was followed by no fewer than three choirs back to the station, where I made my escape, returning to London and civilization. Having said that, I am sure Taffy Gruffydd, our one Welsh mem, will now be haunting my chair at the club, whispering dark thoughts to me. It will sound like gibberish but will have deep meaning to him, no doubt.
I went to a number of hideous schools, which struck me more like Victorian brickyards than places of higher learning. They seemed to be peopled by either odious men who had been sent down from Oxbridge for appalling crimes against humanity, or women reminiscent of irritated camp guards. Looking back at them from this perch decades later, I can see they led squalid lives and were as trapped as we were.
But I must not paint them all with the same brush, for there more than a few to whom I owe a great deal. Several were confirmed bachelors, as the term was back then, and fled from the school in the summer, often on tramp steamers to the edges of the world, or at least to revisit places that spurred their imaginations.
Most were idiots savant, slaves to the one subject that they taught, and returned to their sources: Mr. Snyder to Greece, Mr. Winston to Stratford and Dr. Betts to any obscure amphitheatre in the Mediterranean. He was by far the most interesting, for he was our much unappreciated music teacher and chapel organist. As I said, he could be found in North Africa sitting in a forgotten Roman amphitheatre, listening to the tones coming from little instruments he had set up around the 2,000-year-old half circle, checking to see the levels of perfection blended by sound and architecture. That was all he did every day for his two-month sojourn, and he was blissfully happy.
He would then return to our school and the hell of teaching cloth-brained little hooligans, but at night would write furiously about the findings of his summer travel.
Obscure as this subject was, Dr. Betts, it turns out, was a renowned expert, and many of us have been asked what it was like to be taught by this master. Of course most “old boys” only remember the good doctor red in the face with his ropey jugular vein pumping while yelling at Higgins to shut up. To all inquiries, I say things like “He was a gift” and look at my feet.
Although I have no desire to relive my hugely misspent youth, I do wish that I could chat with a few of those lonely figures from my past, to thank them, mainly, but also to wish them well, for I don’t think many had happy lives, and that is a shame.
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