Jebb

Father Philip was housemaster of Caverel and in 1970 I was appointed to be his assistant housemaster.  A fireball of energy, he taught classics and fencing – indeed, at least one of his pupils became an Olympic fencer – and was ever hastening at high speed through his life, and if not that then en garde with muscles taught and nostrils twitching, ready for the next thing.  He was certainly fleeing from something.  His zest and verve were much admired by the boys in his house and he had a great influence upon them.  Jeremy Higgs, a scamp who was one of his favourites, later joined the Hong Kong police, and as, so the story went, it is the custom in those parts for a woman who has recently given birth to go out into the street and ask the first passing stranger to name her infant after the person they most admired, so in such a case was Jeremy approached.  Jebb, he replied without hesitation.  The story was doubtless one of those truths that can only be communicated by a falsehood.   He, Father Philip, was much given to announcing that the Downside community was the finest body of men since the Twelve Apostles, a comically unintended hyperbole that at least made Downside’s hubris, which trembled ever on the edge of the ridiculous, the more liveable with.   Or was it wholly unintended?  For he was by no means wholly untouched by that sophisticated Downside irony, both perspicacious and paralyzing – he was fearful of intimate relationships and would use irony in the most polite and polished way to distance and dominate – so subtle and many layered it frequently confused itself. His great gift to me, however, was his love of archaeology.  Like Freud’s consulting room, his study was littered with ancient treasures brought back to school by his pupils from all over the world after their holidays, for they knew his predilection.  The figurines and trilobites and bits of broken pot seemed to glow with a fascinating significance, much as one might, after many years, come across your school cap or a stamp album in the attic which at the time of their utility were merely secular objects, but now cause a wincing of the heart and give one an inexplicable pleasure as if they had become retrospectively soaked in one’s personal being.  And indeed, such ancient relics and artefacts recovered from so remote a past are the possessions of all mankind and alert us to our common inheritance, the shared childhood of all our humanity, long forgotten but stirred into consciousness by these long lost objects.  This too was a seed that was later to flower in ways of which then I could not have dreamt.

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