There can be few more eccentric teachers than those who inhabit the shadowy world of the English private school system. They range from gentle young scholarly idealists bullied in their own childhoods for being unworldly or effeminate, to ineffectual Oxbridge graduates unsure of what to do with their lives, irascible retired army officers, amiable motherly matrons for the younger pupils, and sadistic tyrants in the ignoble tradition of Dickens’ Wackford Squeers. Schoolboy literature is full of them for the simple reason that their prototypes existed then, and undoubtedly, still do. One of these was a teacher who affected me far more than I realized at the time.
Peter Athonas was Greek. He was a foreigner with a heavy accent, and it was his improbable duty, we thought at the time, to teach us English. With the prejudice and cruelty for which small boys in a private preparatory school were in those days notorious, we had already dubbed him ‘the ass from Athens’ and ‘the Greek freak’ even before we had met him.
Mr. Athonas was a large, deeply bronzed man, then in his early fifties, with huge, hairy hands, who always wore brown tweed jackets with patches on the elbows. He walked with an odd, shambling gait which was cruelly easy to imitate, especially behind his back. Woe betide anyone he caught, however, for he had a terrible temper once aroused from his normally grave but kindly placidity. He would tolerate a certain amount of schoolboy silliness, as teachers must, murmuring ‘Aaii, Aaii!’ disapprovingly, as a warning to desist. When a heedless malefactor continued to misbehave, however, Mr. Athonas, with the rough justice teachers were then permitted to administer, would seize and grip the unfortunate boy by the hand, shoulder, or arm, squeeze it with frightening ferocity, and growl, ’Do I have to ponch you and keek you to make you see sense?’ The spectacle was vastly entertaining to onlookers, but clearly not so for the victim.
Mr. Athonas loved the English, despite their boorishness. He loved English. He especially loved poetry and grammar, and could not understand why the boys in his charge did not. There would be a hurt look in his sad, brown eyes if the class were restless during the reading of a favourite poem of his, and perplexed annoyance whenever a boy deliberately mispronounced the name of the author of the sixth-form grammar text. It never failed to exasperate him, which is, of course, why the boys did it. ‘It is not “Puddle-berry,” he would complain, ‘the man’s name is Pendlebury!’
Yet he was, deep down, a kind and gentle bear of a man, a teddy rather than a grizzly, a lifelong bachelor who made the daily trek by train and on foot to leafy Surrey from smoky London, where he was rumoured to live beside St. Pancras station in an area later blighted by seedy bed-and-breakfast places conveniently overpriced for unwary visitors from abroad. How he managed on the paltry salary paid him by the school I cannot imagine. I remember him once greeting my mother, window-shopping on the Parade, courteously lifting his hat in the old-fashioned way he had, and saying, ‘Pardon me. May I disturb the view? How pleasant to see you here!’ with genuine warmth. It is he who introduced me to the work of the autodidact writer Richard Church, and to C.S.Lewis and to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the latter largely unknown at the time, but a powerful spur to the possibilities of the human imagination to me when I first read it as an impressionable and bookish fifteen-year-old. It was Mr. Athonas who surreptitiously slipped two enormous Cadbury chocolate bars into my desk on my last day at that school, one of my last in England, as a reward for having done well in the English papers assigned as part of the 1963 Common Entrance examinations.
I last heard, years ago, that, then in his eighties, he had, poignantly, gone blind, but was still living near St.Pancras, and looking forward to sharing tea with former pupils. I hope some of them dropped in on him from time to time. It would have been a kind thing to do, and they would have departed the better for making his re-acquaintance…