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.
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