Last week, I visited Germany's Versailles, the splendid Sanssouci summer palace of Frederick the Great at Potsdam outside Berlin. It was enchanting, and the palace itself - only twelve rooms in total - has astonishing rococo work. But the magic was the memories it awoke of studying Frederick the Great, the commanding Prussian king of the eighteenth century, at school rather a long time ago.
Walter Batty was brought up, as I recall, in Warmfield near Wakefield, which - when he was young - had its own grammar school. I visited him there a couple of times. He lived with his elderly father, whose great passion was keeping a couple of pigs, for which Walter was forever boiling potatoes as feed. He had a fairly humble background, and for a head of department at a direct grant school, a fairly humble lifestyle.
The story went, indeed I think he told me it, that Walter secured a scholarship to University College, Oxford to read history. He was a contemporary there of Hugh Trevor-Roper. They both got Firsts, but Walter's was the better First. He was asked to do doctoral research but declined. He needed to earn a living to help support his parents and so went into school teaching. He helped me to follow a similar path (not the teaching bit, mind) - to Oxford (Keble, with an exhibition) to read history, and securing a First. It took me another thirty-five years to get my PhD.
All this was brought to mind by Fritz's Potsdam palace. And it prompts me to say, very belatedly - thanks, Mr Batty!
A quick visit, kids in tow, to my home city of Leeds. I haven't lived there since Ted Heath was PM - yet I am still shocked by how much has changed. It's difficult to find reference points as you walk around the centre. The majestic Town Hall is still there, a monument to late nineteenth century municipalism. And Albion Street. And the market. And the arcades. But where's Barron's mill? All the department stores of my Saturday afternoon shopping-with-parents childhood - Schofields, Lewis's, Matthias Robinson, Marshall and Snelgrove - long gone. I can't find a single shop in the same place as it was. Some of the pubs have survived, but that's it.
I suggested to the kids that I take them to see my old school. I thought they would resist. Sternly. But they didn't. The Grammar School has moved - the site is now part of the University - and what we used to call the 'new building' has been demolished, but the chapel and the old main building survive in their gothic mock grandeur. And indeed they look quite impressive.
I drive round Hyde Park Corner and Woodhouse beyond. Bolshie Books went decades ago, the record shop where I used to spend school lunchtimes also a faint memory - but some of the streets of back-to-backs survive. I pop in to Ridge Mount where a friend used to live - I remember it as an overgrown slightly mystical row of imposing houses, hidden away and distinctly bohemian. The houses are still there, even more imposing, though a little bare stripped of the bushes and undergrowth.
At least it's a tangible link to an earlier existence. And with curiosity at least partly satisfied, and sentiment lightly aired, we head back down the M1 munching Easter eggs and playing new CDs.
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