I wonder if you’ve realised that today will be the longest day of the year? And, conversely, December 21, the shortest? And did you know it’s the other way around if you live south of the equator? These are little shards of school teaching that have lingered in my mind for decades, imprinted indelibly on my memory not because of their utility or importance but due to the sheer force of the personality of the person who taught them.
Guru was what we called him, the nickname being an apt pun on his name: Gurdial Singh. “It’s the summer solstice,” I recall him saying as he swayed gently on his feet, in perfect co-ordination with his rhythmic delivery. “To be precise, it’s the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.” Guru was always precise. I guess that’s why I still remember bits of what he taught me.
Today the sun should be exactly above the Tropic of Cancer, the northernmost point it reaches on the Earth’s surface as our planet circumambulates the sun at a fixed tilt to its own axis. On December 21, the sun will be over the Tropic of Capricorn, it’s southernmost point.
So, if you live in Bhopal, Gandhinagar, Jamshedpur or Ranchi, cities that lie on or near the Tropic of Cancer, the sun will be directly above you at mid-day. That also means your shadow will be the smallest it’s likely to be this year.
Very different to Guru was Bertie Stephan, my English tutor at Stowe. He was a man of long, meaningful silences interrupted
by short, sharp comments uttered through teeth clenched tightly around the stem of a well-used pipe. But when he spoke, it was akin to the pronouncements of an oracle.
Mr Stephan taught me Antony and Cleopatra and I grew very fond of the play. I can never forget the look on his face each time we encountered Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s arrival. His eyes would light up, a smile would play on his otherwise immobile face and he would nod his head in acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s talent.
“Remember these words,” he’d say. “Or better still, learn them by heart. This is what Shakespeare calls making an entrance!” And he’d tap his finger on the table for emphasis.
We spent the whole of Michaelmas 1973 on this one single play and while I might not have fully comprehended the magic of Shakespeare, Enobarbus’ soliloquy is imbedded in my memory forever. Like Guru’s solstices, that description of Cleopatra
will never fade away:
“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, Burn’d on the water; the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them …”
But why do I recall these remnants of learning today? Because the more I think about them, the more I’m convinced that it’s about all that’s left of my education. Most of the rest was either blissfully discarded once end-of-term exams were over, or fell into disuse because I had no need for it.
In fact, the sad truth is that we all get to a stage where we’ve forgotten most of what we once learnt. It’s only stray obstinate fragments that remain. Of the physics, chemistry, biology and maths I once diligently studied I can recall virtually nothing, or, when I do, it’s only to realise that I recognise a name or a phrase but no longer remember what it means. My recall of history is better but often it’s all jumbled up. For instance, I get most dates woefully wrong.
In this sea of forgetfulness, Guru’s solstices and Stephan’s Enobarbus — but, sadly, not much else — is what remains of an expensive schooling. Years of conscientious cramming and a succession of good results are now reduced to the inconsequential nuggets my brain retains three decades later. Age might not wither nor custom stale Cleopatra’s infinite charm. But it can, and does have, a terrible effect on the rest of us. The older you get, the more you forget — and there’s no getting away from that.