• Paul

Shakespeare walks into a pub. Landlord says: ‘Get out, ye Bard.’

If the pub in question was the Castlebay on the Isle of Barra, or one of GP’s many favoured hostelries up in The Lakes or The Highlands, and if the TV on the wall was showing replays of England going over in the corner to clinch a Grand Slam at Cardiff Arms Park, that scene might just be an ideal snapshot of the life of Graham Pearce Wilson.

Rugby, of course, was a major passion. And although the last game Dad was to watch was an enjoyable England victory over the Australians, it was the scalp of Wales that GP most celebrated, be it for the senior team or his fondest age group, the U-16s. That is not to say he didn’t appreciate other teams or other sports, and in his early years, together with his brother David, Sunderland AFC and Roker Park were all-encompassing. Both he and David have a brick in the new Stadium of Light, so Dad and I duly went up for a game when it opened, but it was clear the experience was a pale imitation of the seminal memories forged by the Roker Roar and the trip to Wembley to see Bob Stokoe’s team defeat Leeds and famously lift the FA Cup. Later in life he would make one last attempt to persuade his grandchildren Archie, Bobby and Alex to follow the red and white, but knew in his heart it was a lost cause.

By the time GP arrived in Macc in the 1960s rugby was taking over. He found the game, particularly from a coaching point of view, more intriguing, riper for interpretation and experimentation. And it was his take on the game which influenced so many of his sides for over three decades. First, he found his niche with Macc Rugby Club and later, of course, with King’s. U-16s was his speciality but when the opportunity came along to run the backs for the 1st XV, he forged an alliance with Reg Davenport which swept most before them for several years. There was nothing he enjoyed more than seeing King’s topple another of the powerhouses in school rugby, but woe betide anyone who crossed him if they had lost.

To say he gave his all to King’s rugby would be redundant as in all his endeavours, if GP considered the project to have merit he would always set out to go that extra mile. Sometimes literally – under Dad, and with the help of parents like best-mate-to-be John Wright, King’s Rugby branched out into international touring, and to raise money for such trips Dad would challenge himself to one long-distance walk/run or another in the hope of garnering sponsorship. Given GP’s shape, people were often surprised by what were usually extremely impressive times. In his book 40 Plus Dad wrote that when approaching that particular life milestone he earnestly posed himself the question of how he would approach his fifth decade on the planet: ‘Fit or fat?’ Typical GP, he managed to be both.

Despite his many successes on the school playing fields, GP’s primary concern at King’s remained the English Department. Having given up The Law after taking his degree at Durham University, Dad had retrained as a school master. ‘But what on earth are you going to teach?’ my disappointed and slightly bewildered grandfather had asked. Dad, like many a bright boy of his generation, had been told in no uncertain terms that Latin, Greek and Ancient History were the preferred A-Levels at Durham school, so English had been quietly dropped, despite winning the School Prize. Now was his chance to make the decision for himself and English it would be for the rest of his career. TT Shaw offered him a position at King’s and there he would remain for the next 33 years. GP was a modest man when talking about his career but rightly honoured that David Birt recommended him to take over as Head of Department, when it was the usual school policy to recruit from the outside for the more senior positions.

While my own occasional forays into the classroom bear little comparison to Dad’s achievements, Jane has carried a much brighter torch into the various fields of Education, and this is something of which he was very proud.

No account of GP’s efforts within the English department would be complete without mention of all things dramatic. GP took to producing and directing plays with relish and the results bore testament to his eye for detail and creative mind. Gilbert and Sullivan was the order of the day when he first arrived but soon he was branching out. Shakespeare of course, but more avant-garde pieces too, all part of the process of challenging the audience and the boys in the cast. As a young boy I would accompany him back stage wide-eyed at the various contraptions and mechanical machinations employed in the production of each performance. It was with a great sense of fulfilment that he handed over the baton to John Barrass, a former pupil/lead actor, whom he welcomed back to King’s with open arms as a colleague.

You can’t have plays without parties and suddenly if the likes of John, Ollie Cleaver and Ian Taylor weren’t celebrating with Mum and Dad at the house, we’re back at the bar. The list of pubs close to my Dad’s heart/liver was more an encyclopedia (perhaps one day I can put a guidebook together), but besides The Castlebay Hotel on Barra certain institutions in and around Macc cannot go unmentioned: The Flag, The Three Pigs, Willie Stevens’ King’s Head, The Plough and The Chester Road Tavern – thank you one and all.

That said, you can’t have pubs without walking (well certainly GP couldn’t have walking without pubs). Initially, Dad was drawn to the outdoor life through rock-climbing, first with Phil Langley, then Mum (honeymoon clinging to the north face of a Cuillin on Skye anyone?) or his great friend Ron Bailey. From rock climbing came the hills, first The Peak District and The Lakes but soon The Highlands and the not insignificant prize of bagging all 282 Munros, occasionally with me in tow, often with an old pal from his teacher training days, John Goodman. As Munros became Corbetts and Marilyns, more and more of his time spent walking was with Mum and talking about walking with fellow enthusiast Chris Harle - the mountains of Scotland and northern England never lost their allure. The Highlands led to the islands, particularly the Hebrides, all arrived at by public transport of course, and his favourite gem, Barra.

So here we are, back at the beginning. Castlebay Hotel: enter WS stage left. I was unsure at first as to centring my thoughts around the device of a one-liner but the more I wrote the more it seemed to fit. GP never accepted the status quo unquestioned and I have a feeling that to kick off a eulogy with a joke would have been the kind of cocking a snoop at the straight jackets of convention of which he would have approved. GP, moreover, loved language and its endless possibilities: the second, hidden meanings, the subtle craft. At the very least, the play on northern-accented words from ‘Get out, ye Bard.’ to ‘Get out, ye barred!’ would have raised a smile. GP was serious about his literature, about the books he wrote, the novels, poetry and plays he read. But he did take great delight in the playful nature of words. First and foremost his ambition was that of a wordsmith.

The twist in the Tale

Something is missing, the scene is not yet complete. And it’s the side of my Dad which few saw. Growing up through primary school Mum was so visible in and around Bollinbrook and town, GP had little choice but to remain invisible, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there. The family holidays alluded to above were sacrosanct – the cornerstone of each and every year, topped off when all four of us climbed Dad’s final Munro on the Isle of Mull. From the Orkneys to the Scillies we explored every off-beat nook and cranny the British Isles has to offer.

Back at Mount Pleasant, our family home from beginning to end, he would spend hours tinkering and building things to make our home a happy place. The highlight was the ‘Little House’ he built for my sister and me on a small landing up by the attic. There was a door, letter box, blackboards, a window – but of course this was GP so all the posters on the walls were educational cartoons on synonyms and homonyms. And did I mention that once a year at Christmas he would always offer to do something very special? The washing up.

Like Shakespeare, GP was never entirely convinced in the existence of a heaven, but if there is one, I’ll happily wager Dad will find his way to the watering hole. So I’d like to think next time Shakespeare walks through that door GP will be there, standing at the bar, ready to buy him a pint.


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