In his excellent book Letters from School, John Rae devotes one chapter to the retirement of a legendary schoolmaster. If you teach at those sort of schools, you know exactly the sort of person he describes. These individuals are academic, charismatic and resolutely anti-establishment. They tend to be popular with pupils, but not always for the right reasons. I may be misquoting, but at the retirement dinner for this schoolmaster, Rae is indirectly criticised for being the ‘mediocrity’ that ‘fails to recognise genius’.
I used to walk past the bust of Frank McEachran each day when I taught at Shrewsbury School. McEachran (or ‘Kek’ to all those that knew him) taught English at the School for 40 years and was Alan Bennett’s inspiration for the character of Hector in The History Boys. I have a copy of McEachran’s book Spells, which I recommend strongly to any teacher who believes education must be about more than the bare bones of the syllabus.
Shrewsbury School is geographically isolated (as far as this is possible in the UK); it was almost a two hour journey to play our ‘local’ rivals at Malvern College. This isolation, coupled with the historic nature of the establishment and the fact that (until recently) it was one of only five boys’ only boarding schools in the country, meant that it had its fair share of legendary and colourful bachelors. These gentlemen are a dying breed – the sort of folk who give their life to a school and exist almost exclusively within its four walls.
I never taught alongside (Frederick) Michael Hall, as he retired soon before I arrived at Shrewsbury in 2004. He occupied the post of Head of Mathematics for almost 30 years and was (by all accounts) an eccentric individual and a brilliant teacher. He never married and must have given a huge amount of his time and life to the school. Working at a full boarding school is at best a ‘six days a week’ job, and Michael Hall did not limit his commitment to term time. He taught at a time when no-one would have known what a multiple-page risk assessment was and, as such, the expeditions he led in the school holidays are very much from a bygone age.
During my five years at the School, I taught with some of the wisest and interesting elder statesmen in the common room, many of whom were ‘termites’ – that is, they had taught at the School for at least one hundred terms. These were the sort of men to carefully pronounce both ‘t’s in the phrase ‘last term’. But I also wished I had met Frank McEachran and Michael Hall, because they each seemed to be the epitome of the legendary schoolmaster (without being the awkward characters described by Rae). McEachran died in 1975, so I missed him by quite a time (I wasn’t even born at that point) but I missed Michael Hall by only a couple of years. When he died in 2005, there was a mixture of sadness, reminiscence and gossiping. I don’t think he had found retirement straightforward, and this is common for men who tangle up so much of their life in that of the school and the boys.
There was great excitement at the School with the news that Michael Hall’s wine cellar had been donated to all the current members of the Common Room. He was an oenophile of great repute and word had it that the cellar was stocked with rare gems. The local wine merchants were engaged to itemise the contents of the cellar and then to assign approximate value to each bottle, in order that the amount available to each teacher could be calculated. Teachers were then free to pick the bottles they wanted up to that value. But it turned out that reports of a fine wine cellar had been greatly exaggerated. The collection was more meagre in quality and quantity than anyone had expected. Some of the wine merchant’s notes went as far as describing certain bottles as ‘undrinkable’, which caused great mirth given these had been gifts from current members of staff. I was pleased with my single bottle of Chateau Leoville-Barton ’96, but this was an oasis in a wine desert, and was infinitely better than the plonk hoovered up by my disappointed (or undiscerning) colleagues.
By 2005, none of the boys at the School would have remembered Michael Hall. Most of the teachers did not remember the person either, so it was sad that the explosion of the myth that was the great wine collection was the last time he was remembered and discussed by a large number of people. Maybe it’s a good thing that giving one’s life to a school is neither expected, nor lauded these days. We never know how we’re going to be remembered when we are gone, and having a positive impact whilst we are able should be enough for us.