Search This Blog

Friday, April 20, 2018

Going back to my old school after fifty years

I left school after my A-levels in the summer of 1968. I hadn't been back since. When, in recent years, I'd been up in Yorkshire visiting family I'd driven past the place and toyed with the idea of just asking if I could have a look around. I never got round to it.

Then somebody from the school got in touch with me after I'd appeared on a recent BBC show about Whistle Test. I told her I was visiting the area on book promotion duty and I would like to drop in. She arranged it all. It was a fascinating experience.

When I went there it was a classic northern grammar school of a certain vintage. The stern central building was designed to look older than it was. They began adding modern buildings in the 50s and 60s. The boys who showed me round assumed that the one that housed the school hall had been there for ever. Actually, the foundation stone was lain in 1958. I know because I was present, in short trousers, at the ceremony.

Lots of it had changed, obviously. What used to be the library was now a reception area. The headmaster's office was in the room where I did English. The rooms that used to accommodate an entire class were now used for small tutorial groups.

People asked me if it seemed smaller than I remembered it. No, it didn't. Did it smell the same? No, it didn't.

The boys in the music room were learning to play "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. I can only hope they are as rigorous in punctuating that correctly as we were encouraged to be by Mrs Ellis back in 1962.

I told the headmaster that the thing I most often thanked my education for was what Mrs Ellis used to call "clause analysis". This involved taking apart sentences and identifying the different parts of speech. The headmaster, who is of course way younger than me, told me this was coming back into fashion after thirty years in the cold. "There's nothing new in education."

Every now and then on my tour I turned a corner and found myself whisked backwards. Different things triggered it. The corner of the playground where I once put my hand in my pocket and discovered half a crown I didn't know I had. The feeling of an 19th century bannister worn smooth by the hands of decades of boys. A leaded window though which you could look out at the same sky. The steps up to the Lecture Hall where I first recited Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting", a poem I still know by heart. The parquet floor of the school hall (above) where I played Troilus in "Troilus And Cressida".

I'm glad I did it.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Instead of writing a song about being on the road here's a blog

Perugia's an ancient hilltop city in Umbria. Every year it's taken over by the International Journalism Festival. Hundreds of young hot shots descend on this place from all over the world and deliver presentations on what to do about Fake News or How To Interview a Really Dangerous Person or How To Get Round Censorship When Running A Website In The Middle East. The sessions take place all over this most picturesque of towns and in the evenings the restaurants are full of people listening to the sound of their own voices as they slip smoothly from their own tongue to English to Italian and back.

What I was doing here you may well wonder. I was invited by the organisers, presumably to provide some light relief and because my 1971 book has been published in Italy by Big Sur. I was interviewed by Luca Valtorta from La Repubblica in the splendour of the Teatro della Sapienza, which dates back to 1362. I was worried there would be just a few people scattered across the stalls but it was full. This is probably thanks in no small part that entrance to the festival is free and therefore the student population of Perugia tends to show up. You can watch the session here.

I've been to well-organised festivals before but this was on another level. There were two interpreters stationed in a booth backstage at my event and people could listen on headphones if they had difficulty with the languages. All the sessions from all thirteen venues were streamed live throughout the day and archived the minute they were over. Then the organisers gave you a ticket which bought you dinner plus wine at one of a number of partner restaurants throughout the town. Everything worked as it's supposed to.

As a bit of gentle run-up to this appearance at the festival my Italian publishers organised a whistlestop tour of Milan, Turin and Rome, which took in five live radio interviews, as many interviews with journalists, two appearances at bookshops and an hour's chat to a bunch of students at Scuola Holden, which is a storytelling academy in Turin. To get to all these appointments took long train trips, colourful journeys in the back of city cabs, often going the wrong way up one-way streets, and a two-hour coach ride in the Italian equivalent of a Greyhound, sitting behind a man who made no less than twenty-one separate phone calls in its course.

After just four days of this kind of schedule I felt as spaced out as most musicians feel after four weeks on the road. I see what they mean. Either you're trying to wake yourself up because you have a performance to do or you're trying to calm yourself down because you know you need to sleep. You're either starving hungry or you never wish to see an item of food ever again. Either you want to jabber excitedly or you want to check out of the conversation completely. There's no inbetween. Luckily I shall not be writing a song about it.