Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Teaching the Professor

I think most of us have books that we turn to for some dependable entertainment, no matter how many times we've read them. One of mine bears the unlikely title of More Humorous Tales From 'Blackwood'. Blackwoods was a well-known magazine, that was published in Edinburgh between 1817 and 1980. Known colloquially as Maga, it flourished particularly in the era when the British Empire was still a political fact. I bought the book in a second hand book shop in York for 50p in (I think) 1978, and learned an enormous amount from it.

Despite being a fairly precocious ten-year-old reader, I did find it heavy going in places. Some of the lighter pieces went down easily enough (building a house in Barbados; tales of 'My Uncle' -- an eccentric inventor), but despite the humorous theme, some others defeated me. Take Two-Blocked, from 1953, a bewilderingly dull (to my 10 year old self) account of a naval exercise. Returning to the book years later, I realised that it was by Geoffrey Willans (author of Molesworth), and was a rather well-written piece that had a lot to say about post-war Britain trying to thrash out a new relationship with America (the exercise was a joint RN-USN one). Indeed many of the tales (and they are Tales, please note) speak, more or less directly, about the war and about Britain's transition to ex-empire.

Over the years, the collection has stayed fresh, with some over-familiar friends dying away, and previously ignored tales gaining new life. Teaching the Professor is one such. This seemingly slight account of a drive across north Africa in 1943 is one of my favorites. The narrator of the story and the Professor of the title are army officers who need to be in Cairo, but are in Algiers. They make the journey in a thirty-cwt truck, which they christen 'Pinafore'. The Professor really was a professor before the war, and is ferociously erudite, but has trouble with things like making tea, and coping with those who do not match his own high levels of ability. To alleviate the boredom of a fortnight's drive, they agree that whichever of them is not driving should educate the other. It's easy for the Prof., who holds forth about classical history, art, and literature, and can even use the territory of Carthage as an illustration when they pass through it. The narrator has more trouble thinking of a theme, until he discovers that the Professor cannot ride, and so instructs him on hunting, horses, managing hounds and other buccolic English pursuits as they traverse battlefields and amphitheatres.

Over the years, I have often wondered who the Professor really was. Only today did it occur to me to search for him on the internet. Within a minute, I had discovered that he was Enoch Powell. Teaching the Professor was written by Michael Strachan, whose obituary is here.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I heard about the death of J.G. Ballard when my radio alarm came on this morning. As it wasn't a school day, I lay for a while and drifted in and out of sleep, not really sure what had happened. I think he might have liked that.

The Borders

I've never quite understood the romance and mystique surrounding the Scottish Borders. Recently though, I may have been beginning to see the point.

Today was an Edinburgh local holiday and in a fairly random way, I decide to go to Dryburgh Abbey. So it's on to the bus and down the A68 to St Boswell. I walk down to the Tweed and follow it upstream for a mile or so. It's a stupidly pretty spring day. The sun is out, but it's early enough in the year not to be too stuffy. The woods are full of wild garlic, which I can smell if I step on any of the leaves. Small birds are twittering, a swan is being graceful on the river, fishermen are wading, and it wouldn't surprise me if I started singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

On getting to the little foot bridge where I cross the river, there is an Arcadian style temple on the hillock on the other side.

Somebody's been doing odd things to the landscape: I love this kind of stuff. It's a Temple of the Muses, to the memory of the poet James Thomson, erected by the Earl of Buchan, who was keen on making this area a kind of open-air monument to Scotland's past. In fact, a Temple of Caledonian Fame. The Earl was also keen to preserve (and perhaps to "improve") Dryburgh Abbey itself, which is where I go next.

Dryburgh is a ruin, but a really interesting one. It has some of the best preserved medieval paintwork in Britain (don't get excited, it's just smudgy marks really), and has wonderful trees round it (some of them thanks to the earl again). Also there are the burial places of Walter Scott and Douglas Haig. Haig's gravestone is of the standard World War 1 design.

I have a nice lunch, during which I eavesdrop on a couple sitting next to me. What are they up to? The woman gets jumpy when she thinks she recognises somebody else coming in. It's tempting to stay and see what their assignation is about, but I head off for another part of the yer man's hall of fame. It's a 10m high statue of William Wallace, looking across at the Eildon hills.

It's a pity that somebody has tried to colour in the shield in that rather half-hearted way. Somebody should do a study of bad art inspired by Wallace.

So there we are, a day out full of quirky stuff in the Borders. I'll have to go again.