I witnessed what was almost a violent fight to the death on Hampstead Heath the other morning. Broad flawless sunlight, the serenity of one of London’s greatest lungs and then, from the little pond opposite the mixed bathing pond, screams. A swan, its neck arched like a bow, yellow beak wide open, was shielding four cygnets from the splashy persistence of a determined mongrel. The swan struck, the mongrel dodged the blow. The swan swivelled and followed the attacker into the shallows, but the dog still ducked and taunted the swan. A frantic owner ran along the bank fruitlessly calling out the dog’s name. Someone — me I’m afraid — yelled, ‘Grab it! It’s shallow water!’ I went towards the bank but the owner took courage. She went in, seized the dog and huddled it to safety. Merciful in victory, the majestic swan merely came to the edge of the water and stood guard until the danger was taken well away.
At the top of Parliament Hill — the big tourist feature of the Heath — children in an obedient circle were being taught about climate change; from the playing fields below came the shrill excited cries of a school sports day; further along in the bandstand near the tennis courts a choir was practising in full voice; and then I passed the breathtaking row of willows beside the mens’ pool and the mums with prams being exercised by a fierce trainer, and it was a fine July morning in London with all sorts and conditions in this free space and England were on the way to beating Australia in the Test, there was an old friend to see later on, and all was well. In London the city can turn into the country in a trice, just round a corner, quick while it lasts.
Last week a great event, the opening of a new Library, the Laidlaw Library at Leeds University of which I am Chancellor. Lord Laidlaw studied economics at Leeds in the early 1960s, went to America, founded and grew an immense research project, sold it and now devotes himself to philanthropy. What a gift! It is a most beautiful contemporary building. Glass, Portland stone, columns, space, echoes of Athens and the stamp of the 21st century. As Lord Laidlaw and many of the students I met said, it was far more comfortable and handsome than their digs (there’s a café tucked into the ground floor) and the students I spoke to loved it. They could not wait to get into it (I swear) and left only reluctantly. If the remorseless drizzle of news dampens your souls, if you think our country is increasingly mired in a mess of its own incompetent making, if you want to see what the future can be — go for a stroll on the campus of a good university. The best of our country is there and the best is to come.
At a time when the guns seem to be swivelled to point at the BBC, let’s throw a few things into the ring. The biggest and most successful university in this country — the Open University, which has been copied all over the world — was wholly enabled by the BBC. The classical music scene in this country and indeed the arts in general exist as the world leaders they are because of the widespread cultural patronage of the BBC. The Proms are just about to begin. On BBC Radio 4 there is a weekly succession of talks and factual programmes which has no parallel anywhere in the world. I could go on. I intend to. So must we all if we are to keep something which is born and bred in this country and is in the very grain of it in good health.
An independent television company has made a film about my life which will be shown on BBC2 on Saturday evening. The oddest thing of all about being involved in that film is that I learnt crucial facts which I had never known. They interviewed my history teacher, Mr James. Aged 94 and as clear-minded as anybody you could meet. He told me that when I was about to leave school at the age of 15, he had gone to see my father and mother three times to persuade them to let me stay on at school. I am 75. It has taken about 60 years for me to learn what was most likely as decisive a move in my life as ever happened. But Mr James never mentioned it at the time. He was a son of a nonconformist missionary sent back to England to a small boarding school. He got into Oxford before the war (the same college, Wadham, to which he directed me). He was a Spitfire pilot in the war (and he never tried to win favour by telling us about that). One way and another he served the Wigton Nelson Thomlinson Grammar School for 57 years. He is one of that small, quiet, modest army of people who change lives — good teachers.
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