Thursday, August 21, 2014

Role Models

I am in Edinburgh at the moment, enjoying the offerings of the Festival and the Fringe Festival, as well as a few of the local pubs.  Time flies when you're having fun, so I've decided to rerun a blog I wrote in October 2010.  I was reminded of it because of all the Scottish accents around me - some of which are broad enough that I need a translator!  My grandfather lived with us when I was young - he was from Glasgow - and was very influential in instilling in me a love of reading.

Last night I went to that great Edinburgh event - the Tattoo.

The very impressive Edinburgh Castle

Finale with all the performers from around the world - including Zulu dancers who must have been freezing in the cold wind.

Later today I will sup with that great Glasgow institution - Krimi writer, Caro Ramsey!

Stan - Thursday

Neither of my parents did well at school.  Both failed their Matriculation exams (the national examination taken when a senior).  My mother was a warm, generous person but not inclined to study.  My father was extremely smart, but a lousy linguist and failed Afrikaans, which meant he failed Matric overall.  I suspect his standing at home improved when he came second in the British Commonwealth Accountancy Exams a few years later.

Neither of them went to university.

But both of them were dedicated to providing their kids the best educational opportunities possible.  So I and my two brothers were sent to a parochial school in Johannesburg, not for the religious training (my family were not good churchgoers) but because it had the reputation of being the best school in town.

But more than providing that opportunity, about which I’ll say more later, they also made home a place to learn – not in any mandated way (other than homework, of course) – but by surrounding us with the opportunity to learn.  For example, although neither of my parents really enjoyed classical music, they bought several Readers Digest sets of LPs (that’s long-playing records for the younger set!) of famous symphonies, concerti, etc.  They bought The Hardy Boys books and Teddy Lester’s Schooldays, and encourage us to read the ‘one and thrups’ (comic books that cost one shilling and three pence), many of which were graphic versions of the classics.  And they were always willing to fork out for new books.

While my parents provided the opportunity, my grandfather provided the passion.  Hugh Scott MacGregor was gentle Scottish mining engineer from Glasgow.  He and his wife, Francis Meta Watt (from Edinburgh and a relative of the steam man), came to South Africa shortly after the Anglo-Boer War in the early 1900s.  He came to work on the fabulously rich gold mines around Johannesburg.  With him he brought a beautiful, but simple bookcase, which I still have, and a collection of classical books – Walter Scott, George Meredith, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Robbie Burns, and so on, which I also still have.

Hugh LOVED to read.  But more than that, he knew a lot – about a lot.  So I have very fond memories of general knowledge contests around the dining room table.  My mother wasn’t so good, nor were my brothers, but Hugh and Bill (my dad) were good – my father surprisingly so since he never seemed to read anything other than the newspaper.  Being mildly competitive, I found that these competitions were an incentive for me to read more so I could stump the others.

Gramps's bookcase
But it was Gramps’s bookcase that hooked me.  Actually the books inside.  I can imagine me as a young boy taking out a leather book and opening it.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”

How could one put the book down?

Or in another leather book – it was deep red, I remember - :

‘When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An' getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm."

How could I not love poetry?  Especially when Gramps read it with his soft brogue.

St. John's College, Johannesburg
My schooling was at an Anglican school in Johannesburg: St. John’s Preparatory School, and for high school, St. John’s College.  Not only was it a beautiful environment, built in the early 1900s from stone, sitting on top of a koppie (small hill) in the middle of Johannesburg, but it was focused on producing rounded young gentlemen (very much in the English public school tradition).  So everyone was required to play sport.  In primary school, because I have such awful foot-eye coordination, I was relegated to being goalkeeper on every football (soccer) team.  I was actually quite good in that position because I am blessed with excellent hand-eye coordination.

 I also played cricket (a lot), rugby (a lot), tennis (a lot), and swam (a lot).  In fact (he said blushing), I still hold the Under 9 25-yard backstroke record!  That is the truth.  But perhaps not the whole truth!  It behooves me to disclose that the year after I broke the record, the school built a new pool that was 25 metres long.

But I digress.

What was wonderful about St. John’s was the emphasis on reading and the enjoyment of literature.  For example, in my senior year, I studied (and I mean studied) Merchant of VenicePygmalionPride and Prejudice, as well as an anthology of poems ranging from Tam o’ Shanter to Young Ethelred.  And I repeated the exercise with books in Afrikaans and Latin.  (There’s a thought:  translating Tam o’ Shanter into Latin.)

Stan as Goneril's gorgeous handmaiden
My English teacher would often have a group of boys to his house on a Sunday evening to talk about literature or to read One-Act plays.  Furthermore, in high school the school produced a different Shakespeare play every other year, and on the intervening years produced a Gilbert and Sullivan.  I was banned from the latter because of my lack of singing ability.  So I was a gorgeous handmaiden to Goneril in King Lear, and Salerio in Merchant of Venice.  In primary school, I was the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland.  I also produced a very funny One-Act play called The Rehearsal, which is worth reading.

So, as I look back on my life, I can see how greatly I have been influenced by those around me – the role models within my family and those they surrounded me with, and many stimulating, dedicated teachers.

When I think of how fortunate I have been, I naturally think of the many kids out there without role models.  Whose lives will be poorer because of it.

Stan - Thursday


  1. I'm so jealous, Stan. Three MIErs (including Annamaria passing through London) in the UK at the same least let's call it the UK until 18 September. I'd love to be supping with you and Caro. I'm sure it will be an evening filled with grand conversation and all that flows thereabouts, as exemplified by the terrific new MIE photo showing you the bon vivant we all know you to be. Voila!

  2. How fortunate you were to have your grandfather -- and his lovely bookcase of books.

    Yes, it's awful for children without role models, but also those who don't have adults in their lives to introduce them to books and the love of books.

    I see the neighbors' children already loving books; it makes me so happy knowing that I have contributed to this.

    1. My parents were not role models as such but they were determined that I become what they would calll cultured. Factory workers, they saw education as a way up for me and my brother, who both have PhDs. We received books for presents. I was taken to the theater and ballets when the family budget made it possible but it was my mother who took me while my father thought these experiences would confer "class" where I was concerned. He was so smart he had been skipped four grades in elementary school and too young in high school, dropped out and hitched rides on trains across the country. He did encourage my love of nineteenth-century Russian music and ballet but largely for political reasons. And for the same reasons instilled in me my interest in folklore--the art of the people. I guess I will never forget the apolectic fit thrown by the professor in my music appreciation course in my freshman year at college when I said that Tchaikovsky was greater than Mozart because he appealed to more people. I would never say that now, having become a Mozart lover. My mother's influence was less narrow. She was always reading, mostly mysteries. Hence my presence as a responder on MIE blogs.

    2. My only reply now is that I have replied three times with slightly different replies and that last time I was told that I was published. I even proved I was not a robot. Clearly I am doing something wrong. So perhaps you can tell me step-by-step how to do this right. Hit this and then hit that. . . . I really found it fascinating to think about the role my parents had in my education, work, and life. And if I can do it right, I will try again.

    3. I see the earlier reply just came up. ???? Computers are weird. Sorry!