Updated: Feb 9
Charlie’s Newsletter has stimulated these thoughts.
His first line ‘Home once again after a dizzying nine weeks ‘ hides the fact that after six weeks in Venice , in his small bedroom-office above the entrance to the Hotel Messner Annexe with our thirty-three students , he was tired : not by our daily but by nightly activities and the Venetian accoustic. After the day’s lectures, visits , dinner and maybe a film, a gathering of our students around midnight under Charlie’s window ,discussing quietly whether or not to go to Piccolo Mondo , makes enough noise to wake him ( and neighbours who telephone the carabinieri to complain ) : the return, around 3 am is another awakening , even though our considerate students are only ‘ whispering ‘- maybe fifteen of them . Venice is a silent city at night- every tiny sound , footstep , the murmur of the flowing tide in the canal , a distant human voice can be heard , as invasive as the starlings flighting to their nests in the roof of our house in the Marchigian countryside. Among his many virtues , Charlie is tolerant and kind and forgiving – but , youthful as he may appear , he is getting older . He would like to sleep undisturbed at night. He is much appreciated , by me and by all those who are sorry to have disturbed his slumbers.
The main theme of his Newsletter is whether one can compare our students of today and those in years gone by , particularly the majority who lived before the time of Facebook, Instagram , Snapchat , Tweet and internet addiction. ‘ What is it that draws a thread that connects out students from the 1960’s with those of 2017 ? ‘ Charlie writes. ‘ In 1965 , on the first day of the first course , the young man who is my father bounded up to announce to the students that ‘ You are the year’s course ‘ and handed to each one of them the metaphorical keys of the car .’
It wasn’t quite like that for a very nervous thirty year old who had just given up being a schoolmaster, confronted with thirty-two very bright students, twenty-two going on to Oxford or Cambridge. However, the Course worked , and from the only person who has been present at all 52 courses and almost every lecture , I can say that the spirit of the courses has remained more or less the same , both in terms of content and student involvement – and Venice .
A driving force was my own memory of occasional brilliant teachers at school and university , of my grandfather , of my father and mother , passing on their passionate and very varied interests and pleasures . The idea was to create an environment where similarly inspiring ‘teachers ‘ could open the eyes, ears and minds of our students into areas outside the passing youth cultures of the moment : without exams and school rules- and abroad, away from their peer fashions of the moment , inhaling the air of a different civilization. That is still our aim. The grandeur of Rome was a tempting challenge but the 1960’s was the moment of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita , not necessarily an attraction for fee-paying parents . Florence was and is full of English-speaking educational institutions , an unattractively Anglo-American environment. Venice had no foreign institutions , and is a foreign country , an island geographically and psychologically . Citta Nobile e Singolare , its history linking Eastern and Western civilizations , it has a unique beauty , on a human and walkable scale, art and architecture ancient to contemporary , no cars but boats , an actively marine city with the element of tidal salt water ebbing and flowing through its canal veins . After their week in Florence and Rome , our students know even better the singular charm of Venice , which grows as time passes . For now many years , we usually have a number of students whose parents were on the course , not to mention the steady flow of brothers, sisters, cousins – all handing on the Venice virus.
Considering Charlie’s questions about the contemporary digital internet world , I can remember clearly the first time a mobile phone rang in someone’s pocket during a lecture , to the amazement of everyone , a novelty. Nowadays, Charlie can contact and be contacted by every individual student , day and night , by Whats’it.App , reminding them to be punctual for the next lecture or not to congregate under his window late at night . The misuse of smartphones occasionally irritates a lecturer . In spite of which the general morale and atmosphere of the course has stayed much the same over the years , as our students discover when meeting their predecessors. ‘ As I noted in my diary early on the course ‘ wrote one of the alumni of 2015 , ‘ it would appear that John Hall is more of an institution than a course and this became apparent to us on meeting the exceptionally hospitable gang of groovy OJH’s of 1965 …this meeting reinforced something which we had all been feeling for some weeks : that the John Hall Course is extremely special.’
Our Venice Re-Unions show that what all alumni have in common is the Venice experience , a kaleidoscope of challenging intellectual , aesthetic and social revelations and the uniquely civilized dolcezza of life in Venice , summed up in a letter from one of the over ninety alumni who attended a Venice Course re-union in 2017 :
It was such fun to see so many of the 1976 group, to re-live many happy memories, and to re-kindle many friendships. What an impact those glorious weeks in Venice had on all of us. It was a carefree, fascinating and incredibly happy time for us all, having recently left the rigours of endless exams at school, and before the more demanding rigours of university life. No-one who has gone on one of your courses has left not feeling refreshed , interested in things that they had not known about before, and with their minds expanded. So, as Charlie senses, a legacy continues.