Thursday, February 1, 2018

My Log 593 Feb 1 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 30; I land on my feet at an adult education college, with a brilliant tutor; but an otherwise exhilarating time for our varied student body, had a sad and terrible ending

 That French house-painter, Jo Jarru, whose family I visited in Lyons in 1954 (see Chronicles 29, yesterday) was one of a remarkably varied group of students at an adult education college in Scotland that I attended --- my only venture into post-secondary education --- from September 1952 to June 1953. To tell the truth, in general terms, this college failed miserably in the purposes for which it was set up: but all I can say is that in the year I attended, when we had four tutors covering our 16 students, it was a remarkable success. I can still remember the faces of my fellow-students as clearly as if I had met them yesterday.
I happened upon the college by answering an advertisement in the New Statesman magazine, at a time when it seemed I was never going to get a job in England after receiving 84 rejection letters to job applications, and I had been living off my wife’s earnings as a supply teacher in London for seven months. We had to decide whether we should head off back home to New Zealand, or stay a while longer. When we discovered how low the charge was for attending this residential college in Scotland, we figured we could just make it if we were frugal, and if Shirley was able to get a teaching job in Edinburgh to tide us over.
So, returned at the end of August from our tandem holiday in France, we headed north with our tandem and got off the train in Edinburgh, then stood on the street corner wondering how to find the nearest camping ground. Some passers-by, spotting our newcomer status, came up and companionably helped us with directions. By the end of the day we had rented a room in Leith which would be our headquarters, as it were, at least for weekends, although I was expecting to be a live-in student at the college.
The next day we headed out to the small town of Dalkeith, seven miles from Edinburgh, on our tandem, and we were surprised to find that Newbattle Abbey was a stately home, more like a castle than a house, set in the countryside, a beautiful, extraordinary location for an educational institution. I was enrolled as a student, assigned a room to be shared with a student from Kenya, and we cycled off back to our room in Leith, which, in comparison, looked dull and pedestrian indeed.
Shirley had no difficulty getting work as a teacher in Newtongrange,
a mining village only three miles from the Abbey.  I have only to write this down to realize anew how completely this whole enterprise of getting me a spot of higher education depended on the goodwill and sacrifice of Shirley. But as it happened, fortuitously, it all had a happy outcome. For as soon as Mr and Mrs Edwin Muir, the warden of the college and his wife --- both famous writers --- heard that my wife was living in a room in Edinburgh, they suggested she should come and live in the college, where she could share a room with me without extra charge.  I have been the recipient throughout my life of some remarkable acts of generosity, but I am still amazed at the spontaneity of this offer. So, Shirley came and lived just like a student at the college. We went off to the bus stop on our tandem each morning, and I picked her up there after the day of teaching.
The village, as it turned out, was only three miles from the Abbey, and, although the mine began in 1830, since 1890 it had had been the biggest coal mine in Scotland, 1600 feet below the surface, and originally owned by the Marquis of Lothian. This was the same aristocrat who had donated his home, Newbattle Abbey, to the state for use in education, and who had been Britain’s ambassador in the United States just before the war.
To say that I fell on my feet with this adult education course would be to put it mildly.  Edwin Muir was considered one of Britain’s leading poets, known mostly to the public for his book reviews in Sunday’s Observer newspaper, which at that time represented probably the peak of quality journalism in the country. He turned out, on acquaintance, to be a tremulous, soft-spoken little man from the Orkneys, married to a woman, Willa, who was in every way his opposite. Gentle little Edwin was one of those men who needed to be protected from life’s harsh knocks, and Willa conceived it as her major duty to provide that protection. She was a woman of wicked and sometimes excoriating wit, of vast knowledge gathered in their journey through the literary elite of Europe, and of extraordinary generosity and passion.
Edwin and Willa together were primarily known as the first translators of Franz Kafka’s novels into English, although Willa  made it clear she was the primary translator, helped by Edwin. Over more than half a century, nevertheless, in addition to translations from many German writers, Edwin produced some 28 books of poetry and prose, and here I was, a crude, poorly-educated newspaperman from New Zealand, sitting at the feet of one of the masters of English prose, as he meticulously went over the essay I wrote for him every week. Talk about falling on my feet! I emerged from all this with a deep respect for the English language, and a burning desire to write it as clearly and simply as I could. My tutor’s  eminence was confirmed when, two years later he was made Professor of English at Harvard University.
But what about my fellow students? They were almost as unforgettable as our teacher, and represented as wide as possible a political conspectus. First who come to mind were our rival middle-aged Glaswegian Communist and Anarchist, Alf Morris and Bill Mason. A more grizzled pair after the blows life had dealt them, you could hardly imagine, and they were always entering into debates in their thick Scottish accents, leaving no one in any doubt that, in spite of their lack of education, they were both learned men. Self-educated working class intellectuals, the salt of the earth, in my opinion. Alf was an excellent billiards player --- I am talking billiards, the old-fashioned game, canon off the cush, not the more popular potting game of snooker ---- and he and I got into an almost nightly battle over the table in the basement, which we called the crypt.Alf always beat the pants off me.
Then a persistent presence, an Orcadian poet and writer, like his mentor Edwin, was George Mackay Brown, who was repeating a year, having been there before.  I had the impression he was never required to actually do anything, except to be present ---- another man, soft-spoken, soft-centred, it seemed, a gentle presence in a corner of the classroom whenever he turned up, injecting his opinion from time to time in his amused, detached way. He was a big drinker, often under the weather, seemed consumptive, in fact, if memory serves me correctly, he was just recovering from a battle with consumption, a fellow who, it seemed, was not destined to last that many more years, although he was just 32.  Yet of all of us, he was the one who made the most impact in the world later on, publishing from his Orkney stronghold no fewer than 41 works of poetry, essays, novels, plays and so on. In his later years --- he lasted until he was 74 --- according to his entry in Wikipedia, he was  “considered one of the greatest Scottish poets of the 20th century.” Not long before he died one of his novels was nominated for the Booker award. I managed to track him down through some fellow in Calgary who had a contact with him, and telephoned him. He was delighted to hear from me, but said that Germaine Greer, one of the judges, had put the kybosh on his nomination, rejecting his novel out of hand. His entry in Wikipedia records that “this Booker listing caused him acute anxiety,” a detail that rings true of the man I knew at the college.
Other students were Harry Osser, the only typically conservative Englishman in the group, who, on the day Stalin died came down chortling and laughing as if in triumph, while poor Alf Morris was devastated, as if a relative had died. Another student was Tini Nagel-Ericksen, a tall, gangling woman who was the daughter of the owner of Norway’s biggest newspaper, a very pleasant  person, feeling her way tentatively  towards some purpose in life, and Sam Collins, a shy little Englishman. 
But more striking than any of these was James Young, a fiercely left-wing Scottish boy from Grangemouth, self-educated, who could spout reams of Burns, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and other favorites of the nationalist left at will, but who didn’t seem destined to go far in life, all things considered. Again, how wrong I could be! Jimmy Young, having been bitten by the virus of socialism, devoted his life to writing 14 books to arouse the workers to support it.   Many years later I came across some references to books by a person  who sounded like Jimmy, so I contacted the publishers to discover if he had ever attended Newbattle Abbey. They confirmed it, gave me his phone number, and I phoned him to find he was seriously ill, and had been for several years. I phoned him again later, but by that time he had died.
I had a personal reason for appreciating the passion of James Young. Two of our students were from Kenya. One, the elder, was a married man, irrevocably Christian, from a smaller coastal tribe, with already a big family of children. Later I met this man in Kenya and discovered that he had become not a teacher, as he was when he came to the Abbey, but a senior civil servant who served in several ministries of the Kenyatta and Arap Moi governments, whose family had grown to 11, and who, when I met him, was head of an Aga Khan company. I asked him what had happened to the second Kenyan student, Henry Munene, a Kikuyu, who had become the centre of a colonial Office row. My acquaintance waved my query aside, said he had no idea what happened, he had never heard of him again. And he seemed to put down as insignificant the Newbattle experience that I had found so rewarding.
Henry Munene was one of the most delightful men I have ever met in my life. He was loved by everyone who knew him, a man of unfailing humour, cheerful, amusing, and passionate. 
With so few students, to fill the empty spaces, a contract was signed for the National Coal Board to send Scottish miners in for a week’s refresher course. A new batch of them arrived every Sunday night, left on Friday, and every Thursday night we held a concert at which the miners and some of the students took part. It was there I discovered that these tough-as-nails miners wore their hearts on their sleeves: they could spout Burns with the next man, and Thursday after Thursday we heard renditions of such sentimental ditties as My Ain Wee Hoose:
There's a wee hoose 'mang the heather;
There's a wee hoose o'er the sea;
There's a lassie in yon wee hoose waiting patiently for me;
She's the picture o' perfection;
Oh I wouldn't tell a lee;
Could ye see her ye would luv her just the same as me!

Though these always went over well, the undoubted star of the Thursday concerts were the hyena stories told by Henry. He had an immense repertoire of them, and they were hilarious, for which he always received a standing ovation.
Unfortunately, not everything that happened to Henry was laughable. The trial of Jomo Kenyatta for leading the Mau Mau rebellion was underway in Nairobi while we were at Newbattle Abbey. One day it was reported by the BBC that evidence had been presented that a student called Henry Munene, about to leave for Britain, had been taken into a room and forced to swear to the Mau Mau oath.  Within a day or so, officials of the Colonial Office, which had paid for the education of the two Kenyans, appeared at the College, and were reported to have demanded he renounce the Mau Mau and all their works. Henry refused to do anything they suggested. They were trying to intimidate the wrong man: beneath his smiling exterior, Henry had an iron resolve of decency which did not allow him to betray his tribe.
This was towards the end of the term, and all I knew as I left for London was that the Colonial Office had withdrawn Henry’s support. I wrote to Fenner Brockway, a Labour MP active in support of Africans, who replied that he had asked a woman of his acquaintance to look into it. I received a typically gentle and friendly letter from Henry, in which he cemented our friendship as an unbreakable one. Then  I had a letter from James Young, that young firebrand, to tell me that Henry was staying in his family house in Grangemouth, and “if those bastards want to get him out, they’ll have to bring the whole fookin' army.”
This terrible event cast a deep shadow over the last days of our term: that such an entirely loveable person as Henry could have been persecuted in this way, so unfairly, made me hate the Colonial Office even more than did their appalling behaviour towards the Kikuyu rebellion in general, in which more than a 1,000 members of the tribe had been publicly hanged, and thousands had been incarcerated in concentration camps.
It was not until, years later, in my phone call with Jimmy, that he told me the denouement: poor Henry, pushed beyond his limits, had ended it all by killing himself.

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