A Miscellany of Memories – Part 4
During one of my later tours to Italy, when I had left the SMC Classics Department and become Headmaster of the Junior School, I was back yet again in Pompeii, this time with a group of Primary 6 and 7 children. We had engaged a tour guide who specialised in explaining the site to young children. All was going well, almost all the children seemed interested and attentive, all except one boy who fidgeted, yawned, looked away, played with various pocket toys and generally kept drawing attention to himself. I took him aside (again!) and told him that he was running the risk of being banned from the ice-cream and swim in the hotel pool which I had promised the group after our day in Pompeii. I told him that I would make a final decision after we had listened to the guide explaining all about the amazing public baths we were approaching. I said I expected him to behave perfectly and to prove how well he had been listening by asking the first question.
Realising there was an ice-cream and a swim on the line he made sure he was at the front of the group as the guide began her talk. He smiled and nodded appreciatively all the way through a detailed explanation of every aspect of the workings of a bath-house (even I found my attention wandering!) and then, when she finished, he applauded and dutifully raised his hand to ask the first question. The guide smiled at him and he duly asked his question:
‘So what exactly was this place?’
Cue a look of incredulity from the guide and nervous laughter from the other children.
Oh well, you can’t win them all and I think he probably got his ice-cream and his swim!
That is probably just about enough about tours although I could elaborate on all sorts of other never-to-be-forgotten moments like the night the luggage compartment of our coach came open on a Turkish mountainside and we realised on arrival at our hotel two hours later that much of our luggage was gone for ever, or having to pretend to be very cross with two boys who had been threatened with arrest on the London to Edinburgh train for selling hand-made sandwiches to random passengers, their rationale being that there was good money to be made given that the official sandwiches were overpriced and horrible, or the night that boys managed to get backstage during the interval and persuade Paul Daniels to spend the second half of his show making fun of me, and all because they claimed that I must have written to him before our visit to ask him to mention some of them a few times (as if!) which he had done throughout the first half …… and so many more.
Perhaps my last story should relate to my home city of Dublin on one of our biennial rugby tours which coincided with the Ireland v Scotland international at what was then Lansdowne Road. As well as watching the international our teams used to play against my own school, Dublin High School, and one other. Every time we travelled I told the boys not to be fooled if the Irish boys wandered in to the ground late, without half their kit and full of apologies for not being very good. Many is the time that the well-turned out and perhaps over-confident Stewart’s Melville teams were lulled into a false sense of security until they found themselves three tries down after 20 minutes to their hosts who kept apologising for being so lucky. The Irish do self-effacement very well and prey on the unwary!
I was particularly proud one year that my brother-in-law, Johnny Murphy, had been selected to win his first cap at fullback for Ireland against Scotland and I told all the boys how amazing he was. As it happened we were standing on the terraces at the end Ireland were defending in the first half so, when John Rutherford, the Scottish stand-off, launched a huge kick in the first few minutes towards the Irish posts, I pointed out Johnny to the boys as he positioned himself to take his first catch. It all looked pretty impressive until Johnny, intent on keeping his eye on the ball, ran straight into one of the goal-posts and fell flat on his face. Within a minute Roy Laidlaw scored and from memory Scotland won by about 20 points! I decided not to mention my rugby-playing brother-in-law again but unfortunately some of the boys seemed to want to ask lots of questions about him for the rest of the trip!
Before leaving the subject of school tours, and I realise that I haven’t even mentioned the 18 years of annual visits to London with Middle School boys which included 54 nights at West End musicals and shows, I should emphasise just how much of a privilege it was to travel abroad, to London, Dublin and elsewhere with generations of friendly, well-behaved boys and girls with whom my colleagues and I shared so many unforgettable and magical moments. I will never forget all the times children tested the echoes in the amazing Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus, or sailing into the wonderful harbour on Santorini (still my favourite place in the classical world), or sitting in the theatre at Ephesus in Turkey remembering that St Paul had delivered an amazing speech there 2000 years before, or standing on the ruined battlements of Troy watching the sun setting and thinking of Homer composing The Iliad, or the solemnity and stillness of the cemetery in what was then Leningrad in which we were told that the bodies of over 1 million citizens were buried during the dreadful siege in World War 2, or sailing from Tangier to Gibraltar on a beautiful sunny day, or exploring inside the Great Pyramid of Giza and visiting Tutankhamun’s tomb. I could go on but enough is enough!