The following eulogy was written and delivered by Tom Bacciarelli at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh, on Wednesday 22nd January, 2020 and expands on the Scotsman obituary.
“He was born to teach Latin, some Greek, and all virtue”.
So Lord Cockburn described Alexander Adam, renowned rector of Edinburgh’s High School over two centuries ago, …. but his words apply equally to George ‘Jock’ Dewar, also eminent Classics Master at The High School – in fact, the last great Master of Classics in a long and distinguished line stretching back nearly 900 years.
Jock honoured me a while ago by requesting ‘a few words’ on this sad occasion. As many of you know, Jock was a meticulous planner and organiser – if there is an Almighty, I’ve no doubt Jock’s already made a few helpful suggestions about how the ranks of Seraphim, Cherubim and other angelic orders might be organised more efficiently. But how can ‘a few words’ do credit to anyone’s life – least of all to a man who lived so fully, so richly as Jock.
At the risk of admonition and correction from those present here in body – and perhaps also in spirit – I’m going to quote some Latin from the poet Catullus. I doubt if he’d be one of Jock’s favourites – he much preferred the manly prose of Julius Caesar and the cadences of Cicero – but it’s that poem where Catullus visits his brother’s grave many miles from home:
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam allorquerer cinerem.
Loosely translated: I have come, brother, to present final graveside gifts and to speak, in vain, to your mute ashes
Hard to think of Jock as mute: this was after all a man who enjoyed good company, conversation and discussion, who presented his views cogently and in detail (usually with 3 reasons why he held them).
So, sadly, here I stand, with so many gathered to honour and, yes, to celebrate the memory of this uniquely talented man, a man who embraced and relished life with enormous energy, even into his 95th year – who had an appetite (perhaps thirst is a better word) for knowledge, scholarship, companionship and engaging with others.
Officially known as George, Jock to friends and colleagues, at one time Whiskey to his army pals, and fondly called Badger by countless generations of pupils at the Royal High School. Jock himself claimed, – with that typically self-deprecating chortle – that he’d become a 4 letter word.
Regarding that nickname of Badger – well, Jock could sometimes over-intellectualise things and, initially, claimed that he’d earned the soubriquet because the pupils thought he was too strict, a conflation of Bad Dewar. “Nonsense,” retorted a colleague, “It’s because you LOOK like a blooming Badger!”
Jock was born a proud Fifer. Growing up in the working class community of Inverkeithing during the 20s and 30s wasn’t easy but from the outset, it was clear that Jock had a razor sharp intellect, excelling academically. He was dux, and won many other academic prizes, throughout his years at Dunfermline High School – as he did when he studied Classics at Edinburgh University. When Jock won the class medal, his professor praised his incisive thinking and gift for communication – how true that was! And although Jock would have succeeded in any career, he recognised the importance of education and decided to enter the teaching profession.
His own academic path was interrupted by the Second World War. On his call up to the army his talents were quickly spotted – soon being transferred from Signals to the Army Intelligence Corps – and he served with distinction principally in the Middle East.
Jock did everything with precision and energy. Even whilst on basic army training, members of Jock’s company would rush to get to the front rank to prevent ‘Whiskey’ Dewar from leading them off…because he marched far too quickly. In fact the only time they allowed him to get to the front was when they were marching off to lunch or at the end of the day. Typically, given his love for precision, Jock was also a crack shot, winning shooting competitions in the army – skills he claimed he’d honed at the various Fife shows. However, once when stationed in the high security diplomatic quarter in Beirut he’d wanted to clean the barrel of his pistol and decided that firing a shot in the air would be the best way to do so. In the ensuing high security alert – whistles, shouts, footsteps, urgent commands – Jock Dewar, for once in his life, kept a low profile.
One of Jock’s passions was music. When he was demobbed in 1947 he attended the very first Edinburgh International Festival – and every single one thereafter. Not only did he attend concerts but, 70 years later, he could tell you with amazing clarity the details of each particular performance, down to the conductor, the soloists, the quality of the brass – and give you at least three reasons why it was excellent or otherwise. Indeed recently he became something of a celebrity when, on the occasion of the International Festival’s 70th anniversary, he was filmed and interviewed by both the BBC and the Festival itself. He could often be seen in his favourite seat at the Usher Hall, leaning forward slightly and listening intently…. With his enormous collection of music, meticulously arranged, his knowledge of every work, composer and performers was formidable. And he loved to share that encyclopedic knowledge and passion with friends and colleagues. Jock’s taste in music inclined towards the Teutonic, rather like his humour: it was with mixed feelings that I admitted recently to an interest in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Jock, predictably, devised a programme for me as follows: 4 hours or so of audio followed, after a light supper, with 4 hours of video…..for each of the 4 sections of the Ring Cycle. This enlightening – if stamina challenging – experience was enhanced significantly by the large quantity of wine that Jock provided to lubricate my musical appreciation.
Jock saw teaching not as an occupation but as a vocation… and that vocation took the young Jock Dewar to Kilmarnock Academy where this confirmed bachelor was given his first form class of 43 pupils…. All of them girls. When he told me, I remarked that it must have been a challenge but that he’d soon have get used to them. ‘Ah’, he replied, ‘more importantly, they soon got used to me!’
At Kilmarnock Academy Jock was a whirlwind of activity– as well as teaching, Jock involved himself in clubs like debating, music appreciation, the cadet force, athletics and rugby. He was appreciated – and remembered. About 3 years ago, outside the Usher Hall, someone he termed ‘an elderly lady’ stopped Jock to ask if he was Mr Dewar, who taught at Kilmarnock Academy. Surprised that someone could recognise him after more than 65 years, Jock asked her how she knew. ‘You haven’t changed a bit’ said she. Jock – typically – replied: ‘I must have looked hulluva old in those days!’.
But he didn’t change …in any way …. and when he moved to the Royal High School in 1957 he continued making an enormous difference to the lives of pupils throughout 30 years of dedicated service. It wasn’t just in the classroom – though many scholars, including Oxford University prizewinners, have toasted the excellence of Jock’s teaching of classics; it was beyond the walls of the classroom that Jock educated his pupils. … and speaking about those classroom walls, I still wake with a start nearly 45 years later recalling the trepidation I felt when Jock first indicated to me (then a callow, peripatetic probationer) the carefully drawn pencil marks on his classroom wall that ensured that his desks aligned perfectly.…a test I passed only at the fourth attempt.
Jock’s love of exactitude was legendary. It was partly his classical training but mainly him. Once, when asked how far he stayed from school, he replied “3.627 miles … approximately”. And sometimes his love for precision and exactness had unintended consequences. His detailed and graphic description of how his varicose veins were removed caused one of the more sensitive ladies in the English department to faint.
When not making female teachers swoon, his meticulous record keeping of just about anything meant that he could nurture and encourage sporting talent in his pupils, particularly in athletics and swimming. He was far ahead of his time in using data to improve sporting performance and he was always proud of his record as Regent of the Angles, ensuring that his Nation won the Inter-Nation Crichton Cup every year that he was in charge.
Jock dedicated himself to his pupils, involving himself in activities like music appreciation, swimming, athletics, basketball, International Youth camps, summer football and, of course, rugby. Quite simply, he engaged with pupils and they engaged with him. Yes, he believed in discipline and order (he told me that the pupils joked he’d been thrown out of the Waffen SS for cruelty – at least he thought it was a joke!) but he was also good fun … and enjoyed talking to them. In fact, generations of pupils knew that an innocently framed inquiry about last Saturday’s rugby match meant that they could dodge at least 20 minutes of Latin on a Monday morning.
Of course Jock – Badger – contributed massively to rugby at The Royal High School. With his colleague and close friend Dougie Mitchell, he ensured that the School played a brand of fast, running rugby that was decades ahead of its time and made the Royal High one of the pre-eminent rugby schools in Scotland. Hundreds of rugby players – including such luminaries as Pringle Fisher, Colin Telfer and Iwan Tukalo – learnt their rugby basics from Badger.
Sometimes he could be a little too demanding of his players. On one occasion, when Edinburgh transport had come to a standstill in a blizzard, Jock still had his B1s out for passing practice in the pelting snow. …, He would quote the more arcane laws of rugby football at length, ever keen to instruct. Once he took a trip of 16 and 17 year olds to Paris to play and watch some rugby – in itself, a brave, perhaps foolhardy, endeavour. As the group searched for their hotel in a less than salubrious district of Paris, Jock – peering closely at the street numbers – heard some of the boys laughing. He asked them what was so funny … and the boys pointed at the scantily clad ladies of dubious repute lounging in some of the doorways. Jock – ever the teacher – sought to glean a lesson from this unpromising situation. “Boys, ‘ he said “I never noticed them because I was looking at the street numbers – just like a rugby referee who might focus on one offence at the expense of many others!”. I doubt it’s a lesson that his hormonally charged adolescents took to heart.
His yearly team reports were terse and often understated. Jock’s final report on his beloved B1s reads: “The B1 XV was a well-balanced team, strong all round, capable of winning good ball and making effective use of it…. Except for defensive kicks to touch when the occasion warranted it, penalties were run with the intention of scoring tries.” And this was a team that lost only one game in the entire season!
Jock – who had the shiniest boots in Scottish rugby – coached teams and refereed well into his 60s – continuing to assist for several years after that … and until he was nearly 80 he gave his support from the touchline, his stentorian voice easily recognised above any incidental crowd noise.
After he retired many of his former teams continued to invite him to dinners or to visit him. And only 2 months ago – when Dave Rennie of Glasgow Warriors announced he was leaving as coach – there was a post on the BBC that read “Send for Badger of The Royal High!” Jock enjoyed the joke hugely – and was clearly pleased to be remembered.
Jock turned down many opportunities to be promoted – he always said that he was a classroom rather than an office man –choosing to give his energy and commitment to pupils. Aristotle says “excellence is not an act but a habit – we are what we repeatedly do”. And in that sense Jock excelled. He was exact and exacting – he set high standards for himself, for his colleagues and for his pupils – but he also had compassion, affability and humour. Alongside honesty, fairness and integrity.
When Jock retired in 1987 the school’s annual report paid fulsome tribute, concluding: “the contribution of a teacher is not to be judged solely in terms of classroom instruction or of leadership in sports and clubs, but rather in overall influence as a human being on young people. On this count Jock must be rated amongst the best.”
In retirement Jock continued to keep fit – I recall a full page spread in the Herald of Jock in his 70s, an example of a silver gym bunny – and he pursued his passions for classical music, history, fine wine and fine dining with the restraint of a tornado. It was civilised enjoyment and enjoyment in being civilised.
And if enjoying yourself were a race, then Jock was a champion ultra-runner. A stalwart of countless dinners, including many with his friends from the Scottish and London Wine Societies, Jock would talk to anyone, discuss any topic, explain his opinions – and it’s true to say that he had firmly held ones (with the 3 reasons why to support them). His stamina for enjoyment was heroic – even at the most recent FP dinners despite being in his nineties, Jock was always the last to leave, the last man left standing.
Jock enjoyed company and his own hospitality was lavish: a carefully selected programme of classical music along with equally carefully selected bottles of wine would accompany the conversation… conversation that would be jovial, scholarly and incredibly wide-ranging: for example, on a recent visit, Jock quoted extensive tracts from Milton to demonstrate the latinate construction of his language; outlined the numerous reasons for Napoleon’s defeat in Russia; gave a detailed account of the life and career of Hector Berlioz; and explained that Schola Regia, contrary to centuries of usage, should in fact be pronounced with a long ‘e’ – Schola Re – gia.
But whilst Jock enjoyed company he didn’t always need it. Right up to his death, he kept his birthday a closely guarded secret. Despite requests by many groups of friends and colleagues, he refused to reveal the exact date. He just didn’t want a fuss. Responding to one friend who wanted to organise a 90th birthday dinner, he gave the politest refusal I have ever seen and added:
“Being alone has never bothered me: alone does not mean lonely.
On the due date I shall open a bottle of 1990 champagne and also a 1985 port. In the evening I shall dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, partaking of their gourmet tasting menu with appropriate wines. I shall enjoy myself in my own company.”
Recently, when Neil Sutherland and I visited Jock, he seemed more aware of his mortality than usual. “I’ve had a good life”, he said. Yes, a good life – but “good” in a far wider sense than he meant.
Norman MacCaig – a former pupil of the High School – Schola Re – gia – and a fellow classicist, too – has a poem entitled ‘Praise of a Man’… and, to me, it describes Jock:
He went through a company like a lamplighter –
see the dull minds, one after another,
begin to glow, to shed
a beneficent light.
He went through a company like
a knifegrinder – see the dull minds
scattering sparks of themselves,
becoming razory, becoming useful.
He went through a company
as himself. But now he’s one
of the multitudinous company of the dead
where are no individuals.
The beneficent lights dim
but don’t vanish. The razory edges
dull, but still cut. He’s gone but you can see
his tracks still, in the snow of the world.
Now that Jock’s shade has joined ‘the multitudinous company of the dead’ we are left with our own particular memories of him, memories tempered by respect, admiration and affection… we can blow on that seemingly grey ember and a glowing light will shine out for us…. In MacCaig’s words: he was ’ lamplighter… knifegrinder… himself’ – and Jock’s tracks can still be seen in ‘in the snow of the world’.
Catullus ends his poem famously
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale
So in honouring this dedicated, erudite, generous, gifted and unique man, I’ll end by paraphrasing that slightly:
and so for ever, Jock – brother, scholar, teacher, colleague, mentor… and friend – hail … and farewell.