Magazine article History Today

The Boy Stood on the Learning Deck: Christopher Lee Describes the Voyage of Discovery That Led to Him Becoming a Historian

Magazine article History Today

The Boy Stood on the Learning Deck: Christopher Lee Describes the Voyage of Discovery That Led to Him Becoming a Historian

Article excerpt

IT BEGAN WITH A teacher called Mr Edgington. Quite properly in my day we never knew Iris first name. He taught us in a lovely Georgian hall house, with an avenue of Cedars along the drive and a view of the school farmyard and the amble of Jack-a-bow the farmer for distraction.

There was not a single word wasted from Mr Edgington. He drew pictures in my mind. I kept them carefully. Most of all, he told me I was an historian. He said it kindly and not to flatter. He was a good Christian, an angular man with a Harris tweed sports jacket, flannels, ginger hair and glasses and forgetful.

When Mr Edgington had written 'See Me' at the end of an essay, he had always added '... Please' and it was usually to explain something, not to cuff manners into a sixteen-year-old.

When I left school, I felt I had let him down.

I was expelled. Misbehaviour, they said. Something about a pavilion that nearly burned to the ground. Nowadays I would have had counselling and three weeks' rehahilitation snorkelling in the Maldives. Not then. Parents were called.

The headmaster, tall, cadaverous, black gowned, pointed a bony finger at the crested iron gates. We got the bus home.

I unpacked my satchel and dumped most of it except the Chemistry and English Prizes, technical drawing instruments and History exercise books.

What was I to do? In the first year of A Levels, I was now set to be a toolmaker's apprentice. I did the obvious thing: I ran away to sea.

I joined an old tramp ship, one of the last that would seek dry cargo from port to port, never quite knowing where the next load might come from or where we would be asked to take it.

It was the supreme 'gap year' for a would-be modern historian of that day. For as I circumnavigated the globe--twice in nineteen months--I discovered for myself that in the world atlas, the pink bits were fading.

I was learning that the British were not universally venerated, certainly not loved. Mr Churchill's view (I never quite got used to the less friendly form of Sir Winston) was slipping below the colonial horizon.

The biggest empire the world had known in which a quarter of the world states had learned to speak English, was not so much crumbling as the revisionists would later suggest but coming of a different age. I learned that I had a lot in common with the new independent states, We had both left home in unusual circumstances.

Looking hack on those all but two years, as I did when I wrote Eight Bells & Top Masts, I understood the lasting importance of them to my future.

I learned a lot about myself. It was a sort of Rum with Rosie episode. More importantly, I knew for sure that I had been right to keep the History notebooks. Mr Edgington had been right.

So when I returned to England, I got a job ashore to support myself, went to night school at the Woohwich Poly and then persuaded Goldsmiths College to rake me as a mature history student.

Much had changed since leaving England. I had gone away at a time when undergraduates still wore college scarves and sports jackets and the girls/women had skirts.

When I arrived to enrol in the NUS office, the other students were in jeans, wore blue shades and, for some reason I did not quite understand, called each other Man and talked about Far Ont. …

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