The North, Remembered
Wilbraham Academy ’67 – Durham School ‘68 When do you know that life will never be the same?
Perhaps it was the night I descended the dark shaft in a wire-cage elevator and saw the faces of the miners on their way up, silent, blackened, and grim. My friend and I were granted a private middle-of-the-night tour of a Northumberland colliery. We went past underground stables that once held pit ponies. We moved deep down a shaft, sometimes on hands and knees. After those hours underground, I knew: No matter what I did in life, I’d be grateful not to be in the pit.
Or was it the first moment my eyes beheld the majesty of Durham Cathedral, its fierce Norman towers floodlit, high on a bluff overlooking the Wear.
(The Wear. Site of my first and only attempt at sculling, which left me intimately acquainted with the Wear.) Surely it was all about being an 18-year-old British Invasion fan from Connecticut, stoked on The Avengers and The Prisoner, at last in England. London! Ronnie Scott’s! The Marquee Club! And the museums! Good lord, the museums!
This was the year of the Magical Mystery Tour, the year The Who Sold Out. I watched them wheel Arthur Brown onstage sporting a crown of real flames. Crazy World indeed. Having all of England before me, and Europe as well. I was Bambi in paradise. Imagine being a naïve Yankee teenager, welcomed like a true gentleman in a Mayfair club—that was the magic of the ESU headquarters. (It then behooves a teenager to dress and behave like a gentleman, a lesson I value even more at 72.)
Alas, the time has erased many of the names of so many generous ESU people who hosted me, everywhere from Oxford to Cambridge to Greenwich. I remember one Sunday brunch, picked up by my host in a Rolls Royce. We drove to a country manor right out of a Merchant Ivory film, where they had more silverware than I had ever known how to use, and the ladies actually adjourned so the gentlemen could smoke cigars.
Everywhere I went, everywhere I wanted to go, the ESU connected me with generous people who opened their doors and opened my eyes.
I’d read my Nicholas Nickleby, so I was unsure about what the British public school system might offer. What Durham School offered, of course, was a host of friends and adventures that sustain me to this day.
Eager to plunge into life as a public schoolboy, I assumed my football greens-and-whites, laced up my shoes, and got ready for my first rugby match. Now, I knew nothing about rugby. I also knew nothing about American football, or any sport, for that matter. That was for Spartans. I was an Athenian. But I was raring to play in all my ignorance. They told me to report to a certain field. When I arrived, it should
have been a tip-off that I was a head taller than the other lads.
Nevertheless, they explained the rudimentary, and the games began. Wonder-of-wonders, for the first time in my life, in my very first rugby match, I’m dominating the field! I’m scoring points! I’m a winner!
Later, back in the changing rooms, I am regaling my mates with my newfound rugby prowess.
“Which field were you on?”
I told them.
They then informed me that I’d been assigned to the group with medical issues.
Those first weeks were a tough adjustment: The great bell of Durham Cathedral rang every quarter-hour, all night long, a great sonorous bong, but in no time, it became almost a lullaby. I still miss it. For me, it was a year to plunge deeper into English literature and European history, a gap year I could fill with my passions and a world of new experiences:
First-footing on Hogmanay down Edinburgh streets, in a pack led by a kilted piper.
Seeing Sir Alec Guinness perform in Joe Orton’s Wise Child as Prince Rainier and a radiant Princess Grace joined the audience.
Hiking the Lake District with the Romantics in my backpack.
Narrowly escaping Paris during the Revolution de Mai.
Witnessing women actually throwing underwear at Tom Jones.
The English-Speaking Union and Durham School put me in the heart of it. Travel, they say, broadens your perspective. It certainly did mine. This was the first time I’d been in classes with Iranian and Palestinian students. I got to hear their perspectives and their stories. It was a side of the news we just weren’t hearing back home. I truly understood the meaning of a “world view.”
But above all, my ESU brought me friendships that changed my life through teachers who engaged my imagination.
Everyone should have a teacher like Norman MacLeod. His history classes were always full of sparkling humor and new connections. Once he brought in the great Medievalist, Sir Stephen Runciman, to speak with us.
I became friends with Norman, his wonderful wife, Sheila, and their son Donald, who became one of my partners in crime. I remember wassailing with the whole MacLeod family on Christmas Eve and playing for their side on the Christmas morning football match against the MacDonalds.
And sometimes in life, if you are extremely lucky, you meet someone who sets you on the right path. For me, that was my Poolites housemaster and history teacher, Hugh Dillon.
E.H.S. Dillon was not only a brilliant teacher; he was a keen judge of character. He had a natural authority with a wry wit--I liken him to Sean Connery or Harrison
Ford--but also a deep kindness. And he knew how to guide young men.
I remember, early in my stay, one of our many conversations. He was sharing his observations of my life in this new hemisphere—not in a critical way, but as a candid friend. And I thought, “This guy really gets me. I’d better pay attention.”
That was the year Bobby Kennedy was shot. And then, Martin Luther King. Vietnam was raging. At times like those, I would turn to Hugh Dillon for wisdom.
Hugh and Dinah Dillon became lifelong beloved friends and correspondents. Their son Peter took me to my first English football game and together we created an inter-school literary magazine. (Two whole issues!). We shared views on film, politics, music, and life that year (with pints to match).
We do to this day. (Thank you, internet.)
I came away from my ESU year not just knowing the world a little better, but understanding the kind of man I wanted to be.