I was down in London on Wednesday evening so decided, for the first time since I left school thirty-cough years ago, to drop in on an old school reunion in town. The school I attended was Monmouth School in Wales, part of the Haberdasher’s group of schools. It was a boys-only day and boarding school with its sister Monmouth School for Girls at the top of the hill on the Hereford road. For the last couple of years, the schools have held an informal weekly drinks reception in a pub near Covent Garden on the first Wednesday of the month.
There were no direct contemporaries of mine, and no-one I knew directly from either school, but some of the ladies I spoke to did recall some of my friends from the girls’ school. However, they were boarders and the day-girls tended not to socialise with the boarders, who had a fairly rough reputation, as I recall. Whatever their reputation from their rivals as children, they were interesting and pleasant company as adults.
The odd think about this sort of occasion is that, although you don’t know anyone and would otherwise have no reason to go up to them and enter into conversation, this is not only possible but a reasonable thing to do. I had conversations with one young man who had become an accountant although his passion was and remained classics. With another seemingly scarcely out of the egg who was a management consultant and seemed very competent at what he did. With a charming lady in her eighties who was still turning out for the sociality.
Some of the conversations were about what was on my mind, the whole public school privilege thing and whether, as future parents, some of these young men would send their children to public school or even board them. The answers I got were thoughtful and demonstrated the genuine conflict that parents have about “the best thing to do”. One man send that he found Monmouth a caring environment that enabled people to grow without too much pressure and, as a boarder, he’d had a good experience.
I also came into conversation with a man somewhat older than me, who was an artist. His inspiration at school had been the same teacher who taught me art, or rather presided over the art lessons at which I was present. This teacher was Otto Maciag, a Hungarian-born Pole who after service with the Free Polish Army in the Second World War, became a refugee and settled in Monmouth where he joined the school as art teacher. As boys, we always knew that he had seen service and was disrupted from his homeland, but he always seemed settled and happy in his new life. My correspondent, who as a gifted pupil spent much time in one-to-one classes with Otto, told me that there were a number of occasions when he would find Otto quietly weeping. He was a kind and gentle man and one of several Poles settled in the Ross and Monmouth areas after the war.
The 11th November is Polish Independence Day, celebrating the liberation of the country from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. In 2011 the BBC published an article about Otto’s family which I commend you should read here.
Now to the bear. One tale that Otto did tell us was of Wojtek, the bear that served in the Polish artillery during the Second World War. Otto was also a ceramicist and he made a plaque of Wojtek which is now in the Imperial War Museum. The following information is taken from the Imperial War Museum’s website:
Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear, was the mascot of the 22nd Polish Artillery Support Company (22 Kompania Zaopartrywania Artylerii) of the Second Polish Corps. Found in Persian mountains in 1942, he travelled with the unit throughout the Middle East and Italy. He is reported to have helped move artillery ammunition at Monte Cassino, as depicted in the plaque. After the war he was kept at Edinburgh Zoo and was made a life member of the Scottish Polish Society. Wojtek died in 1963.
The Wojtek Memorial Trust have a complete history of the bear, which starts here. And today, in Edinburgh, a new sculpture of Vojtek by Alan Heriot will be unveiled in Princes Street Gardens. The BBC article is here.
Wojtek was one of the stories I learned as child. Another was of the endurance and kindness of the Polish people. And another less obvious one, which resonates all the more right now, is the genuine human potential of people forced to flee their homelands by war and their desperate need to find shelter, a welcome and a future.