The View from the (vacant) Rectory
A few months ago, in the pages of this magazine, I recalled with gratitude the excellent education
I had received at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, When the time came for me to go up to University at the age of 18, I didn't have far to go - a few hundred yards from school to Edinburgh University, to read English Literature. Among my fellow students in my first year was my father, then in the final year of his degree course, as part of his progress towards the late achievement of his long-cherished ambition of becoming a teacher. But that's another story - one which I can recall having shared at least once from the pulpit.
My own university career began in 1953, at the dawn of a new Elizabethan era, and only 8 years after the end of World War II. It was a very different world from that of today, and one of its key features, certainly in Scotland, was a desperate shortage of teachers, which had led to my father's being recruited to a teacher training scheme. There were many such schemes, several of them aimed at the many ex-service men aspiring to become teachers. I seemed to be surrounded by such fellow-students, whose experience of life and of war put to shame my teenage naïve innocence.
Inevitably, my father had become friendly with several of these veterans, whose age and outlook were closer to his own than those of the more conventional students of my generation. Among these ex-service friends was Bob Clarkson, whom I had met occasionally before coming into much closer contact when we both embarked on summertime vacation jobs in the office of a firm of wool brokers in Leith. Indeed, it was a very different world; anyone requiring detailed knowledge of the workings of the British Wool Marketing Board in the early 1950's should let me know - I spent three summers in that office, and very smelly it became in warm weather!
Like many veterans of World War II, Bob said very little about his army experiences, and it took me all that first summer, and several years of our subsequent lengthy friendship, to piece together the facts of his service in
the Anzio beachhead prior to the capture of Rome, and the final progress with the 8th Army in North Africa, on the slopes of Monte Cassino and across Northern Europe and into Germany. However, Bob was much less reticent about his other main preoccupation during his progress through Italy, Germany and Austria. For in that time he had acquired a deep love and an encyclopaedic knowledge of opera, which he was only too happy to pass on to me, as I came to share that love and some of his knowledge. Perhaps the highlight of our shared enthusiasm for opera came when together we saw and heard the great soprano Maria Callas perform at the Edinburgh Festival.
Bob died many years ago now, having long achieved fulfilment and happiness as head of a small country school near Duns, in Berwickshire (no opera houses there!). As well as opera and Maria Callas, he introduced me to the delights of Archie and Mehitabel. For those not acquainted with them, these two exotic creatures were created by Don Marquis, a brilliant New York journalist of the 1920's-30's. Archie is a cockroach, Mehitabel an alley-cat, and together they roam the back streets of New York, exchanging brilliantly witty dialogue, in which Archie (almost) always has the last word. Bob had discovered them when, during a period of his army service, the writings of Don Marquis were the only reading matter he could find.
So I have much for which to be grateful to Bob, in terms of lasting friendship and sharing of life-enhancing enthusiasms. I trust you will forgive me this stroll down memory lane, for it has served to remind me that the most seemingly unlikely circumstances and encounters can lend untold enrichment to our lives, if we will only remain open to their influence.