Sunday, 14 April 2019

Brexit Britain is, thankfully, still a country for old sea dogs and ex-public school boys like Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

In all its present Brexit travails it is heartening to know that Britain still has the company of sailors like Sir Robin who is 80 years old and who, when he was 30, in 1969, became the first person to perform a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Then in 2007, at the age of 67, he set a record as the oldest yachtsman to complete a round the world solo voyage.

Sir Robin has explained the secret of his success by saying : "When I was on a cadet ship and we were about 50-50 grammar and public school, there was a difference. It showed in funny ways. For instance, the bullies tended to be grammar school boys. I think if you’d been a boarder at a public school you’d been through it there. I do think they had this ethos of ‘Do it, go for it, don’t look back’.”

He maintains contact with the polar adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the broadcaster John Simpson, with whom he appeared in 2009 in the BBC series 'Top Dogs.' The three men were shown visiting the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan, Cape Horn and the tundra of  Newfoundland and he agrees that it is significant that all three of them were ex- public school boys. In addition, he said of mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington : “We go climbing occasionally. He went to private school. It is boarding, I think. But no question." 

The "no question" in Sir Robin's case was Berkhamsted Boys' School in Hertfordshire, which his parents coughed up the money for him to attend, as a boarder, from 1957 to 1968 and where he acquired the qualities which assured his success as a sailor. With its motto 'Virtus laudata crescit' or 'greatness increases with praise' it was originally founded in 1541 by the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, John Incent.

Interestingly, the foremost 20th century novelist, Graham Greene, was at the school some thirty plus years before Sir Robin. The the son of the Headmaster and a boarder in St John’s House, he  was bullied so badly that he ran away from school, toyed with suicide by playing Russian roulette and had to see a psychoanalyst. It has been suggested that this deep, school-engendered unhappiness is why Greene, as a writer, didn’t really do ‘goodies.’ Everyone seemed to be a ‘baddie’ – only some were worse than others.

Thankfully, Graham’s analyst did change his direction, encouraged him to write and introduced him to a literary circle and he returned to Berkhamsted Boys' School as a day-boy. Also, while continuing to play truant to avoid bullies he used the ‘spare’ time reading adventure stories and the tales which deeply influenced his future writing.

Sir Robin is in the news again because he is considering a drastic end to Suhaili, his 32ft ketch, which is showing its age and has suggested that perhaps he should arrange for her to be burnt with his body. “It’s something I should think about. I think it would be unfair to leave it to the grandchildren. I could have a Viking funeral, I suppose.”

It was Suhaili which was was knocked flat in the Southern Ocean in 1969 and nearly had its roof torn off, where Sir Robin was thrown from his bunk, drenched in seawater and realised that if he did not bolt his cabin back together he would die in an open boat. No doubt the old public school ethos kicked in and saw him through and privilege, once again, paid off.

No comments:

Post a Comment