24 November 2022

We few, we happy few.....

In Memoriam.... the good days

My Upper Fourth Registration Group.....

Yesterday, by happenstance, I met an acquaintance from way back - someone who had worked with my father, maybe 45 years ago, but who had once given me some excellent advice.  And he spends some of each year with his partner in Tenerife, where, small world that it is, his social circle included a certain Tom Jackson and his (second) wife.  Sadly, after some years of dementia (and some might unkindly say it was many years) Tom died recently, and this news brought my first meeting with him sharply back to my mind.

We met in the Waldorf Hotel in the Aldwych, then known as the Waldorf Astoria, after 1st Viscount Astor (who established it) but now humbly titled the Waldorf Hilton.....

I was there for an interview with the new Headmaster of St George's English School in Rome (aka Tom B Jackson), which had not long before moved to the ex-Jesuit Seminary at La Storta, on the Via Cassia, just out of Rome, the site, in fact (?sic), where in 1537 Ignatius of Loyola received a vision of God the Father and Christ holding the cross.....

As a result of this interview, in August of 1976, I boarded a train, with my trunk as passenger luggage in advance (as one did in those days) and set out for a new life in Italy.

The seminary building that became St George's

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of Tom Jackson, and in fact I didn't even have a camera for the first year or so of my stay in Rome, but I have raided my archives and selected a few pictures that, despite some dust and scratches, may bring to life those fabulous early years as a member of the St George's community.....

We happy few.....

I will try and keep it brief..... Someday perhaps someone will write a book about it, but for now I'll stick to the highlights.

First off, we have to acknowledge that St George's was a private educational establishment, offering an English education in the heart of Italy.  It was both a business, and had to survive on fee income and nothing else, and it was governed by a board (including people from the British Embassy and Council) that inevitably had an interest in its standing as something of a cultural flagship.  I won't say there was interference from above, but to paraphrase John Donne, No school is an island..... and external influences played a part in St George's in more ways than one.

[In several ways, perhaps?  ndr]

Isobel Scott and Hilary Sides

But, hey, I was 25 and not yet interested in all that.  I was excited to be in Italy, and had an awful lot to learn.  The staff, many of whom became life-long friends, were an eclectic mix of individuals, some of whom had historical links with Rome (for example, Charles Forgione, Welsh/Italian blood, Latin teacher, erstwhile British Military Intelligence officer in Rome after the liberation, detailed - so we were told -  to drive Mrs Mussolini where're she would....) and others who, like me, had pitched up because of a mix of not having yet found a niche and still having a sense of adventure..... perhaps....?

Dr Nick Henson

But the real life blood of the school coursed through the pupils.  Over 800 boys and girls, from over 60 different nations.  Some native Italians, others who, owing to parental occupations, had lived in many different parts of the world before spending a few years in Rome. 

Jane Williams and Richard Edwards

And there really were all sorts (although, despite the fact that some of the children were sponsored, most families had to be quite well off).  This was a very far cry from my teaching experience on the outskirts of Manchester, but, as Eccles once said, Everybody gotta be somewhere..... 

On our way to Barcelona (or back from there)

Parents' evenings could be red carpet events. Stars of film and theatre, and music, such as Vittorio Gassman, Gigi Proietti, Aldo Giuffrè, Ursula Andress, Lucio Battisti, Michele Placido, Francesco Rosi and more. Politicians (Valerio Zanone for one, Eduard Shevardnadze, as a grandfather, for another); authors (Anthony Burgess before my time, Richard Mason and Robert Katz, during my time); journalists (such as Corrado Augias); academics, scientists, economists and friends of the pope - the list could go on (and apologies to anyone who feels left out!)

But all of these melded into a confusion of aspiring souls who laughed and played together and, occasionally, paid attention to teachers.  There was an idiolect at the school, part Italian and part English, which made it easier for newcomers to blend in.  My own daughters attended the primary school (later, ndr) with the step children of then Lazio superstar, Gazza, and, though none of them had secure Italian, they were all at one with each other. 


One of the features of the school then, impossible today methinks, was what we called "March Week," when the school closed down and teachers arranged trips or activities (some of them in school) for  self-selected groups of pupils. This was probably driven by the Italian tradition of having ski trips (not unknown in English schools, though these might more often be in 'holiday' time?)

My first of these involved taking a small party of teenagers, on my own, to stay in a villa on Capri.  I think it went quite well, though one of my recollections is that I had to share a room with a girl because otherwise she would have been sharing a room with her boyfriend.....

Later trips were to Barcelona:

The Aeolian Islands, where my pupils had to rescue me from an altercation with un uomo d'honore who I had caught prowling through our rooms:

and which involved a reenactment of a scene from Pasolini's Theorem (with Terence Stamp) where - if I remember correctly - a character runs naked through the sulphurous steaming fumaroles on the rim of Vulcano:

Maybe I misremember that, but on another occasion we went to Cairo and Luxor, where we found that the Franciscan Convent we had arranged to stay in would not accommodate females, so we had to rapidly find an alternative.  The girls were happy enough, I believe, though the flock of sheep and goats on the roof above their rooms displayed some bleating confusion.

We explored the remains of the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak and then, inspired by my friend and colleague Michael Hill, crossed the Nile and hired bicycles to ride to the Valley of the Kings.  It was 40 C in the shade and all might have been well had all the kids been adept at riding bikes.  Unfortunately, it turned out that one young lady could not.  Alas, it fell to me to transport this elegant but unfinished youth to the tomb of Tutankhamen on my cross bar..... In fact, despite the sweat, I nearly did well out of it as a local farmer offered me two camels for my burden.  

I hope I made the right decision.....

Nearer home there were hill walking expeditions - notably one to the summit of Monte Amiata in Tuscany:

But there were also theatrical performances, such as my production of The Playboy of the Western World, which ran for two nights, the second being twenty minutes shorter than the first as the cast skipped an entire scene and my friend, Bob Brecknell, as prompt, seemed to have been asleep at the time.  

The audience expressed gratitude, though I am still not sure exactly what they were grateful for....

Much more successful were the shows directed by my head of department, Mark Menhinick, with whom we took over the Goldoni Theatre in the back streets of Rome, and which had initially opened when Shakespeare was active.  A production of The Gondoliers was a treat:

Incidentally, this later led to me persuading Patrick Persichetti and his mother to let me and my friend Gino run a series of folk concerts there. Patrick, whose father was a hero of the defence of Rome, also wanted part of the action, so insisted on staging his own one-man show.... that ran for one night, with my wife-to-be, Amanda, and her friend, Hilary, as the only two in the audience.....

(The Goldoni subsequently became a music bar under the name of the Old Goldoni, but then was reclaimed by the Vatican and has since been closed to the public for decades......)

We also had concerts at the school, including some that we organised to support Amnesty International.  Roger McGough was one of my guest artists, as was Adrian Henri, and here is a shot of the late great Adrian Mitchell joining in the chorus of Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released.....

The Folk Club in action

That was a great show, with Rob Hix directing the school choir and orchestra:

Rob Hix conducting, Martin Biggs on strings

And the Coro Ana (the choir of the famous Italian Alpine Regiment - with which both Mark Menhinick and Gerry Firth sang).....

All presided over by the then Headmaster, Frank Ruggiero, who, having heard Adrian Mitchell reciting his verses for the pupils in the morning, advised me that some of Adrian's poetry might be a little too left-wing for the evening performance and that he (Frank) would rather some pieces were cut.....

Needless to say, when I related this attempt at censorship to Adrian, it merely fuelled his performance.  [RIP Adrian].

Another Principle (I think I worked under six, or maybe it was seven?) who liked to air his own views, however unpopular, was Hendrik (Harry) Deelman.  Hendrik had come to us from a post in Buenos Aires, which conflicted somewhat when Argentina declared war on the Falkland Islands.  Despite the complications  (we had to abandon school uniform to avoid pupils being identified as attending an English establishment on their way to and from school, and staff were advised to check under their cars every day for bombs.....) one thing was clear.  On the map of the world behind his desk in his office, Hendrik had scored out Falkland Islands and clearly written Las Malvinas......

Harry was teetotal.  Not an attribute everyone understood.  He had a partiality for raspberry cordial and Coca Cola.  It was indicative of the spirit of our Parent Teacher Association when I overheard Audris telling him in her distinctly South African accent not to drink so much Coca Cola.  Her exact words were: Harry! it makes your arse sag!

What fun!

Kindred Souls - Hendrik and Gerry Firth on a Sponsored Walk

And there were parties, and discoes and lunches, and dinners.  I really don't know how we got any teaching done.  

And as for learning?  Well, that was up to the kids..... (as it always is, ndr)

Fancy dress was a regular feature - 

Or was it?  Maybe these were every day occurrences?  (Or was it my imagination?)

I won't identify anyone in these pictures here, but I am still in contact with many of them, and I am very proud to have known them. A number have become well known - does the name Frans Timmermans not fill you with admiration and awe?  Would you relax in an interview with Nathalie Tocci?  Wouldn't you love to study English Literature at the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio?  Can you ignore the writings of Reshma Ruia?  Do you not wonder at the quick and confident production of Radio 4's Loose Ends?

Ah, we had such times!  

And (most of) the staff were a laugh too.....  I do remember one woman scowling when I offered her a glass of Prosecco at break time on my birthday once, and there was a maths teacher who became known by his catchphrase: There's nowhere to hang yer jacket....  But others knew how to party:

I remember driving my 750 cc Triumph Trident out to Trevignano one night in the dark and discovering that I had maths teacher Sandy Oldham (above) on the back seat.  In pitch dark we went skinny dipping in Lake Bracciano and I can distinctly remember an extraordinary sensation of weightless directionless in the water - I neither knew which way was up nor down (though, I must add, that had nothing to do with Sandy....) 

But she did have an infectious laugh.....

So.....  Although this has been a superficial and very personal piece, sparked by the sad remembrance of the late TBJ, for those with the resources, some of these pictures may once have appeared in the annual school magazine, The Georgian, which I had something to do with for a few years, and there are many more therein.....

The Editorial Team

Those were the days....

And these were some of those who joined in:

In Memoriam Tom Jackson, Janey Alcock, Pat Antonini, Charles Forgione, Mike Wall, Martyn Hales, Geraldine Braithwaite, Barrie Spicer, Rob Hix, Gerry Phillips, Helen Conlon, Rita Venturini, Harry Fairtlough, and all those colleagues, pupils, friends and acquaintances who have gone before......

Thank you for the good times.....


13 November 2022

Says Who?

Now Cezanne takes your hand

(And leads you to the riviera....)

I know you won't care but my paternal grandfather would have been 137 on the day I snapped this picture with my iPhone out of a train window on my way from Nice to Marseilles.  What's more (I won't be long), my paternal grandfather would have been 21 when Paul Cezanne died (and 49 when Leonard Cohen was born).....

And what's that got to do with the price of fish? I suspect you demand....

Well, exactly a month to the day after my grandad's birthday I visited Cezanne at the Tate Modern and was struck by how close I had been to his preferred hideaways on the Med.  This is  one of his views of the bay of l'Estaque - ok it's a bit beyond Marseilles from where I was, but it's close enough.....

And this is another:

And, despite my wonderings (in an earlier piece), about the value of art, I feel uplifted.  My photograph is a mere zilch compared with the way these two pictures have been composed and worked on.  I still have my reservations, but there is something about this man's lifelong pursuit of vision.

Cezanne visited this coastal place many times over fifteen years from 1870, and painted more than 40 pictures of the village and its surroundings.  In a letter to Pissarro he described the views as being like a playing card.  Red roofs against the blue sea.

As Meyer Schapiro commented on the first of the views above:  Without paths or human figures, the world is spread out before his eyes, a theme for pure looking; it invites no action, only discernment..... A marvellous peace and strength emanate from this work - the true feeling of the Mediterranean, the joy of an ancient nature which man has known how to sustain through the simplicity of his own construction.

I'll second that.  I found the pictures brought me a sense of peace.  There is something focused and intense in Cezanne's investigations and experiments. He worked on countless variations of the genre of still life painting, sometimes using the same objects again and again.

These objects are posed against a background of folded fabric - produced in Provence near where he lived - which connects the fruit with the table and the jug and bowl.  These are not naturalistic arrangements - Cezanne has carefully composed a balanced variation of a common unbalance (Meyer Schapiro).  We are invited to stop and study his work, from various angles....

And then we move on, to gaze at a different take on similar objects.  Cezanne is a poet with a brush, constructing images which charm us with their individual accounts of aspects of our lives.....

Cezanne inherited his father's estate, Jas de Bouffan, in Aix-en-Provence in 1886, and from the grounds he could paint Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he did repeatedly from this and other nearby viewpoints - it figures in more than 80 of his later paintings and watercolours.  The notes accompanying this exhibition tell that Cezanne learnt about the geography and geology of the mountain ridge from his childhood friend, naturalist Antoine-Fortuné Marion, and that with this knowledge, combined with methodical observation, Cezanne was able to create a new sort of landscape that deeply engaged with the terrain of his homeland.

And, as he progressed, his views became freer.  As Meyer Schapiro observes, he creates a stormy rhapsody in which earth, mountain, and sky are united in a common paean, an upsurge of colour, of rich tones on a vast scale.... 

The mountain rises passionately to the sky and also glides on the earth.....

And then, towards the end of his life he washed away some of the complexities.  He suffered from diabetes and became frail.  He worked in his custom-built studio at Les Lauves, and produced some pared back images of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

I find that I love Cezanne.  Knowing precious little about him before this exhibition, I came away with a feeling of illumination.  I generally find art galleries exhausting - there is too much to take in, too many people, too many ideas:

And then I came out into the Turbine Hall and was confronted by someone else's installation:

And I thought to myself, No, not today.  I am full of Cezanne,

And I want to travel with him
And I want to travel blind
And I think maybe I'll trust him......

 Paul Cezanne.  Leonard Cohen.  My grandad.  All very different people, but I want to thank them.  They have made my paltry life a little richer.....

8 November 2022

Treasure Trove

 The Snettisham Hoard.....

The Great Torc

Imagine this.  A state of uncertainty, even crisis.  You don't trust the bankers (despite recent hikes the interest rate is still negligible for deposits).  You actually don't trust anyone, as a succession of leaders have proved themselves to be self-serving charlatans without clear ideas....  You have in your possession a certain amount of hard won valuables.  A handful of money and some expensive, if impractical jewellery.  There is a war in Europe and there is talk of an invasion.  You don't want to lose everything. You want to preserve something for your children.  What you gonna do? 

Of course, you dig a hole.  Quite a deep one, and you place your best pieces in a container deep in the hole.  You then infill some of the cavity.  Then you place some of your lesser treasures in another container, place that in the hole and cover everything with soil.  Job done.

Well, near where I now live, there was some unusual activity a few years before Julius Caesar dreamed of extending the Roman Empire beyond the shores of the EU.  Someone (or some persons) decided to bury several crates or containers of treasure (jewellery, ornaments and other various pieces of gold and valuable metal alloys).  And, perhaps in order to confuse potential robbers, the best items were buried well beneath some of the lesser pieces.

It is not known who was responsible for this primitive exercise in safe depositing, nor why such an amount was interred, but when it was unearthed it constituted the single greatest Iron Age treasure trove (I love that otherwise obsolete use of Latin, now still the root of trovare - to find - in Italian) discovered in this part of the world.  One theory is that the rulers of the Iceni Tribe felt the need to conceal much of their important ritual precious metal pieces beneath their treasury.

Fast forward to 1948.  By now, not surprisingly, those who buried the above treasures, or who might have heard rumours of the same, are well dead. But post-war agricultural developments meant that a certain field was no longer planted with lavender and a tractor was employed to drag a modern deep plough across the plot.  The driver (Mr R L Williams) found his plough had snagged some metallic objects, which, on inspection were deemed to be part of an old brass bedstead, and so they were piled at the edge of the field.

The roadside today (no treasure visible from the bus)

A passing expert (who just happened by) thought further excavation was merited, and a number of gold and silver artefacts, including bracelets, torcs - or torques - (a kind of open necklace) and some coins came to light.

Picture courtesy of the British Museum

In 1950, the tractor driver (on this occasion Mr Tom Rout) hit the jackpot and turned up further articles of value, including the finest torc of all.

Tom F Rout

With the help of box scrapers and metal detectors, further work was carried out in 1964, 1968, 1973 and 1989.   The combined finds from this field constituted the first large group of Iron Age metal work to be found in England and Wales which included coinage, and this enabled the finds to be dated between 100 BCE and 25 BCE, with the probable time of concealment being between 25 BCE and 10 CE.  

To quote the magazine Current Archaeology, from May 2007, The best evidence for the dating of the hoards comes from the coins, of which there were some 234 in all: indeed five of the hoards contained coins. They are all Celtic coins, of the early, uninscribed variety, the majority being Gallo-Belgic imports, as well as some early British types. These early Gallo-Belgic are dated to around 70 BC.....

Why is this of interest or importance?  Well one simple reason is related to an examination currently set for those aspiring to British Citizenship. The other day the Times newspaper published ten questions extracted from this test:  look closely at question 3.....

and then look at the answer printed below.  Then compare with the evidence from the Snettisham Hoard (among other Iron Age finds.....)  I am so very glad I am not interested in becoming a British Citizen!

Anyway..... The Snettisham Treasure is a wonder in itself.  Who buried it and why, and how it remained undiscovered for so long remain mysteries.  But the fact that metal workers some two thousand years ago or more were so skilled is to be marvelled at, if only because in this so much more civilised age  some people still understand so little of what it means to be civilised....  And it wasn't just one person.  The Great Torc, for example, is made of strands of twisted alloy that would have taken three to twine.

At the present time, the Snettisham Hoard is divided between Norwich Castle Museum and The British Museum, where it lies alongside other indigenous treasures as the Mildenhall Great Dish and the Sutton Hoo Helmet, not to mention a few bits and pieces looted from the rest of the world....

There were, it should be mentioned, other finds in this area, such as the Snettisham Jeweller's Hoard, buried around 155 CE and discovered in 1985.

And then there are the hordes (Tangles) of Knot that flock across the Wash at exceptional high tides.  (Excuse the pun....)

For most people, however, it is the Iron Age Treasure that is the Torc of the town, and justifiably so..... 

Though, for me, there is only one treasure, and that is personal.....

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

St Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 19 - 21

Imagine this. A state of financial crisis. You don't trust the bankers. You actually don't trust anyone, as a succession of politicians have proved themselves to be self-serving and corrupt with scrambled fantasies.... You have earned a few savings and are paying off a mortgage loan. There is a war in Europe and there is talk of an invasion. There is also talk of austerity, of tax hikes and service cuts.  And there is  rampant inflation. You don't want to lose everything. You want to preserve something for your children. 

What are you going to do?