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All week I have been made to think about the value of education. I began by filling a black hole in my own knowledge: in January, my winning team on a special series of University Challenge failed to identify a bit of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Former pupils of mine emailed in more-than-usual disgust and, I admit, I pleaded to being semi-deaf. Actually, I had never seen or heard it in my life.
So on Saturday I go to the Lake District to hear it performed by the excellent travelling company Opera Project, in weather fit for Jemima Puddle-Duck. The performance celebrates the marriage of the widow of the FT’s former foreign editor Nico Colchester, to the head of Yale University Press in its golden years. Unlike their happy wedding, the opera plot makes no sense.
Over sausages and eggs, I compliment the owner of my bed and breakfast in Kendal on the number of intelligence lines on his forehead. He tells me he left school at 16 with nothing. He was excluded most of the time. He was so bad that one of his teachers struck a deal that she would mark him as being in attendance if he would agree not to attend.
Aged 20, he started up in buy-to-let and has kept on borrowing and buying as soon as the value creeps up. Nearly 30 years later, he has so many houses he dare not tell his mother the true number. In conversation he mentions at least seven. He buys only in what is now the low £120,000-£160,000 band and he is a millionaire several times over, one of the hidden class of landlords who have mini-empires without ever having read the FT.
Most of his tenants are fine but he finds the educated ones are the worst. I tell him I will be upstairs marking exam papers in ancient history from the 24 graduates I have been teaching in Thessaloniki since January. He offers to help, so long as the papers are not written in joined-up writing. When I try to open his front door with the keys of the gardeners’ shed from New College, Oxford, he observes that sound sense is more valuable than learning. After 10 exam papers I begin to dream of rent rolling in without needing to be marked.
On Sunday, I hurry back to Oxford because I have been bought for the night by a lady called Emmanuelle. We have agreed to go to church first, in this case the heavenly evensong in my college chapel. The deal is that she hears the boys’ choir, has dinner at High Table and goes round the college gardens with me, their mastermind, and hears the history and identity of all she wants.
She turns out to be French and very elegant. She is excellent company and has houses in the best part of Chelsea and in Le Lavandou on the Cote d’Azur. She bought me with a very punchy bid at a charity auction for the Afghan charity Turquoise Mountain, for whom one of my great ex-pupils works in Kabul. As the sun finally shows red behind light clouds, we agree to hold a replay. Up in Kendal, my B&B owner would not have been able to enjoy the outing as he has been tagged for battering three bouncers at a local nightclub. If you run a B&B, a 6pm curfew may be less of a punishment than if you are an Oxford don.
On Monday, I check I still have my black-polished spats. I am not preparing to celebrate Brexit with a load of old fogies. But I am preparing to go on horseback to see the fabulous flowers in the upper highlands of Kyrgyzstan in late June. Top boots would not be appropriate in a yurt. I find the pair of them, still spattered with Leicestershire mud from past hunting, and I also find my legendary 44-year-old eider duck sleeping bag, veteran of high Arctic travel and still untouched by moth or mouse. It is my long-stop in life, even if the pound collapses next week.
On Wednesday, I have a big night, Britain’s Oscars for historians. Since 1972, the year of my sleeping bag, the Wolfson Foundation has been giving two annual prizes for history books by a British citizen that are scholarly but accessible. To my immense surprise, one of them for this year has gone to my book Augustine: Conversions and Confessions.
The co-winner is Nikolaus Wachsmann’s great book on Nazi concentration camps. Saint Augustine would have been appalled by them but he would have understood the psychology of those who ran them before later denying they had done so, or who were drawn to evil for evil’s sake. One of the prize-givers even admires my haircut. I fail to tell her it was done by a Turk in Kendal.
The award is made at a glittering party in Claridge’s. Education has its benefits after all. In Willa Cather’s novel, The Professor’s House (1925), the ageing professor has given up on his decaying house. Perhaps I should hit back and spend my winners’ cheque on a domestic makeover, starting with the stair-carpet, which was sold to me dirt cheap in 1987 as “spinach loop”. Or I could buy six good horses, or 600 skinny ones in Kyrgyzstan. Or I could make bids for away dates with Emmanuelle. Or perhaps I should go steady and put down the deposit on a buy — to-let in Windermere.
Read Robin Lane Fox’s gardening column here
Illustration by: Luke Waller