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Sunday, 12 October 2008

More on Mr McTavish

This post is some what off topic, for which forgive, for I have had several emails asking for more information on Mr McTavish, one in particular has led me to offer this short post on the gentleman, who, to the best of my recollection, was my teacher from around my ninth birthday until the end of my eleventh year - year six in the new money!

The happenings recorded in the poem were typical of his spelling lessons which, for obvious reasons, were always the last of the day. The first lesson of the day also had a typical format. He would usually begin it with the words: When I was in Mesopotamia... There would then follow a longish discourse on some aspect of mind over matter. He had been an army medical orderly in Mesopotamia and he would tell us in lurid detail how early every morning he and his friend and fellow orderly would walk across the sands towards the large hospital in which men were dying of dysentery. The point of the story was that he and his friend would vow to each other that neither of them were going to catch it - as, indeed, they did not, because of the power of mind over matter.

The clothing described in the poem was but part of the picture. The shoes he only wore for the spelling sessions - i.e. for the jig he played in the spelling sessions, for they had to do with appeasing the god of that particular piece of music. He would change into them during afternoon playtime. The plus fours were standard wear. Additionally, though, he would wear a coloured handkerchief in the top pocket of his jacket, the colour being that demanded by the gods of the composer whose music he was playing.

One strangeness, was his belief that sugar was the cause of cancer. He convinced us all of this, or so I believe. He had some very graphic descriptions of how, if left in a glass of water overnight, a cancer would turn to sugar by the morning. To this day I do not take sugar in tea or coffee because of the effect upon me of those lessons. My Grandmother, who loved a drop of tea to moisten her cup of sugar, would be livid with rage whenever I recounted these sessions.

The result of one session remains vivid in my memory, because it brought about a sea-change in attitude and behaviour, not just on my part, but on the that of the whole class - no mean feat, I can assure you, for it was a fairly tough school. The session had to do with a lady whom everyone knew as The Mitcham Belle. She lived alone in an air raid shelter on the green adjoining The Cricket Green; a brick shelter, wholly above ground, not one of the dug-out type. She had a sack of manure as bedding. We boys were fascinated by this, not being able to make up our minds as to whether she slept under it for warmth or on top for comfort. The shelter was without any facilities or comfort and was pitch dark inside. She was very sad and very smelly - even without the sack she would have been smelly. There was much gossip about her and I fear she had a torrid time of it from us boys - until Mr McTavish decided to intervene. He devoted a session to the matter of The Young Lady Who Lives on the Green, which lesson title he wrote in green chalk along the top of the long blackboard fixed to the wall. After that we left her strictly alone - and even defended her against other, less civilised, boys from other, less civilised, schools. I do not remember much of the actual lesson, only its result.

He had one highly discernable effect upon me: entirely as a result of his teaching I saved my pennies and bought myself a copy of Plato's Dialogues in the Penguin edition. I bought it as soon as it came out, or as soon as I could lay hands on it, I am now not sure which, but I do remember that The Republic, which was my favourite, was in verse, and I can still recite whole chunks of it that I learnt then, not because anyone said I should, but simply for the pleasure of it.

So too, it was his influence, I am sure, that was instrumental in encouraging me to ask my mother please to cancel my standing order with the newsagent for the weekly Film Fun and Radio Fun, and to order Punch instead. Thinking back to those days, it struck me that he was in many ways a typical English eccentric - except that he was Scottish. I also began to think about those teachers who have meant the most to me and really made a difference. He would rate as one of the top two, I think. The other was very different, a geography teacher at the Grammar School, who taught us more than just Geography: how to take notes that could be referred to at a glance, for example. The whisper was that he would have been lecturing in some university somewhere had he not had too much of the communist about him. He was certainly head and shoulders above the general run of the teachers we had then. It was not just his name that endeared him to the boys - Sidney Bottoms.

27 comments:

Ken Armstrong said...

Wonderful post Dave, enjoyed it greatly!

Your 'Mitcham Belle' lady reminds me of a character in our town who everybody called 'straight-back'. He seemed to live his life in World War II and was constantly directing traffic with the military bearing which gave him his nickname. Whenever anyone called him 'straight-back' he became upset and belligerent but, having found out that his real name was 'Joe' and calling him this, I found him to be remarkably lucid and friendly.

All some people need is a little human kindness.

Lucy said...

Did she really sleep on a sack of manure? How astonishing!

Mr McTavish is even more remarkable described in prose at length, I suspected he might have been a little poetically enhanced.

There seems to be less and less room in either education or the community for eccentricity.

Sorlil said...

What strange and wonderful memories you have, life seems so pc and sanitised these days. Sugar as the cause of cancer, if only I had been told that as a kid I might not be such a chocolate addict now, lol.

Dave King said...

Ken,
During my late teens I did a bit of soup-serving with The London Embankment Mission. There were some very sad but intelligent and lucid guys there, I recall.

Dave King said...

Lucy
The belief certainly was that she slept on orunder it. Sometimes I wonder, though, if the manure was to keep us kids away. If so, it worked.
Sad, but true, yes, there is less and less room for eccentricity these days. And no, he wasn't poetically enhanced, though I guess it is the eccentric times that I remember.

Dave King said...

Sorlil
Thing is, every time I read of some new piece of research implicating yet another once-safe item on the nation's menu, I wonder if one day he's going to be proved right!

hope said...

The best compliment I think you can give a teacher is to remember him/her years later for being a positive influence. :)

The other night my husband commented on the fact he has a terrible time remembering names...he's been like that since age 17, so it's nothing new. :) He's astonished that I remember names, especially of past teachers. We started in the first grade; he'd name a grade, I'd name the teacher. We stopped at 7th grade...because I was about to launch into the story of how my history teacher had us reenact WWI trench warfare. He was a football coach who made us line the desks up like trenches while he stood on the "sideline" with a whistle and yardstick. After the "ammunition committee" finished making paper balls for tossing, we had our reenactment...with him blowing a whistle and pointing the stick at the "dead", who had to get off the battlefield. Those kind of teachers and lessons stick with you forever. :)

Bet you were a good teacher too Dave!

The Weaver of Grass said...

It's astonishing the influence a really good teacher can have on a receptive child. I love your McTavish even more now I have read his story in full.
If you have a minute could you please give me a criticism of my poem "Recurring Dream" which I posted on my blog on National Poetry Day. I have had some really constructive help and shall rewrite it when all are in but I would really appreciate your comments as I love your poetry. Thanks (in anticipation)

Anairam said...

It is a lovely poem - what an amazing teacher he must have been! Teachers have such enormous power and opportunity for inspiring those they teach - especially at primary school level. I still remember, 40 years on, Mrs Jordaan who read us a poem every day of the week and encouraged us to write our own, and Miss Winifred Beyers who wrote poetry and told us (9 year-olds) wonderfully fantastic stories about Simon the dog, who could fly a helicopter and who had the most amazing adventures in different parts of the world. They instilled in me a love of poetry and reading ...

Ellumbra said...

Hi Dave - I thoroughly enjoyed this account. Your writing brings many a wry smile.
Thank you.

Isn't it strange how retrospection gives an entirely different colour to episodes in our lives which we sailed through at the time, completely unaware that they would actually become highly memorable landmarks.

Dave King said...

Hope,

I amsure that is right, thoughh I would have to say there are a few teachers who stick in the mind for the wrong reasons!

I sympathise with your husband; I too have been afflicted with a terrible memory for names - and it isn't improving as I age. It has been the cause of much embarrassment over the years

Jim Murdoch said...

In Primary 7, which would place me about the same age as your good self, we got our first male teacher, a Mr Watson, 'Winker' Watson as he became known although I have no recollection of any predilection for winking on his behalf. He was old and I have always believed that he had come out of retirement for some reason. He drove an old-fashioned car for the time, a Wolsey 6/90 I think but don't quote me on that; something very similar in any event. I remember two things very clearly from his class, firstly, the amount of poetry we covered that year – all your classics from the 19th century – and the stories he used to tell about when he was in the War, particularly one tale, which he told us many times over, of chasing a Hun around a haystack. After a while he realised that if he turned round the man would run straight into his bayonet, which is what he did. I have no doubt it was fiction but we didn't care. And he had his own staffroom – he didn't mix with the women teachers which I always found a bit sad.

Dave King said...

Weaver of Grass

Thanks for that. Glad it helped. I will do what I can re your poem.

Dave King said...

Anairam

Yes, the good that a good teacher does is incalculable.

Dave King said...

Ellumbra

I was reminded of that by Sorlil's comments; the incidents that seem so strange now seeme perfectly normal at the time. In part it is a change in the culture and in expectations, I suppose.

Dave King said...

Jim,
He does seem to have had a bit in commmon with my Mr McTavish, not least the poetry, which I haven't stressed except to mention Plato's Republic which was a verse translation.

John Theberge said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the photo I posted, thanks for visiting my blog.

Dave King said...

John,
Thanks for dropping by and welcome.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Dave, I so enjoyed this post--you created such vivid characters, including your grandmother, who in my mind looks identical to my mother who also loved a drop of tea with her sugar--as long as the tea had steeped for so long it could strip paint.

Fun post!

Dave King said...

Conda
Thanks for that - sounds like our grandmothers would have got on famously!

Mistlethrush said...

What an inspiring post - thank you.

Spelling shoes - what an intriguing idea. I just hear them tapping out the letters / syllables into memories.

Dave King said...

Mistlethrush

Of couse, that is what he was doing! We never rumbled it! Morse, perhaps - another of his interests I did not think to mention.

Thanks for the comments.

SweetTalkingGuy said...

What a great character and so brilliantly told!

Dick said...

Memories paralleling in so many ways my own experience of that strange twilight era after the War. Good stuff, Dave. There's a species of meme here in recollections of influential teachers. I hope it inspires a few from your readership.

Dick said...

Whoops - a few MORE recollections was what my fingers missed!

Dave King said...

Sweet Talking Guy

Thanks for that. He was popular, but I don't think we appreciated him enough at the time.

Dave King said...

Dick,

Yes, it was a strange twilight era. They were not all McTavishes, by any means. Some are perhaps best forgotten.