MLJB is leaving Charterhouse after twenty two years. Elliot interviewed him about his time at Charterhouse and his plans for the future.
To start, what qualities do you think make a Carthusian?
The willingness to live a 25-hr day. This is the sort of school that rewards people who get a lot out of being here because they want to do a lot. Um, that’s the answer I would have given 20 years ago. Now I think we’d have to include kindness in that; we want our pupils to be kind really, because we come this way but once. I also think a great Carthusian virtue is a sense of humour, often a slightly subversive one. The ideal Carthusian should be someone who feels lucky (as I always have) to be here
Why do you think music is so important culturally?
Everybody has their own music that’s important to them. Whether or not they consider themselves musicians, let’s face it most people listen to music in the car or they walk around listening to music. It’s intensely personal and a very powerful form of expression; the other important thing to think about is that two people can listen to the same piece of music and hear completely different things. Music’s meaning is not explicit. I find it quite subtle.
Do you have a highlight from your time at Charterhouse?
Well I don’t set store by major occasions and achievements. I think what I enjoy is the everyday round; I like the sort of things that come up in hashes really. I can’t single out any occasion or achievement. I don’t think life is really about achievement, I think it’s about celebrating the everyday and waking up thinking “it really is absolutely amazing to be alive and I’m lucky to be here making the most of it really.
What made you come back to Charterhouse and take up a job here?
My wife! At first I was rather reluctant, but she felt it was a job that I should do and I’m very glad she insisted that I put in for it. I can tell you that I didn’t want to, and I felt very under-confident coming for it. I was sat at flagpole in my car thinking “Oh I can’t do this” but… here we are.
Do you have a favourite hymn to play on the organ in Chapel?
Well, I don’t really like any hymn much… I just like it when the school sings. Of late, I think the school has been singing much better. Any hymn is enjoyable if people are giving it the beans.
Quickly, can you name the top features of The Shed?
[Laughs] Well, many have drawn attention to the Yorkshire Tea box Sellotaped to the ceiling. Seriously, I think writing words and putting them up on the walls; I like having these words around me because they partly remind me what to teach and partly what to think, or what not to forget and I hope that people have enjoyed looking at them over the years – though when I have occasionally tested people on what is written on the walls, even the ablest div seems not to have noticed that there are words there at all. If I start a sentence like “The rest is…” [silence], they’re not being ironic when they say nothing [Laughs].
How and why did you come up with the term “chunko” as a replacement for banco?
I find that banco’s such a silly word… for a long time it was just a stupid word for homework, but homework is a horrible word too, and so is prep – and when you’ve said ‘banco’ and thought it was a funny word all the time during your schooldays and then you come back as a beak and it’s still ‘banco’ you need to find something that sounds the same but is a bit more fun. It also suggests an inert portion of matter that will land heavily on my foot and I’ll have to mark it… and people will not enjoy doing it. I think ‘chunko’ is rather good actually. There’s a certain repetitive strain involved in being a beak… you have to say the same things very very often indeed, so I like to find different ways of saying things.
If you could collaborate with one modern artist, dead or alive, who would it be?
Michael Jackson. Not around anymore? Bay-once? To be honest my big regret is that I haven’t put on a play while I’ve been here (until now, with the Hamlet reading in Artifex), and it might have been something I could have had a stab at and done very badly [chuckles]; at least we’d have had fun failing in it.
This question might be a bit cliché but if you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
A sense of pitch! I am meant to be a musician, but I’ve got the most terrible cloth ears. Is invisibility too boring? I think flying… it’s definitely got to be flying. I often look at the birds that perch on the tops of our sublime towers. Eventually they’ll be eaten by a hawk, but it would all be worth it just to be able to fly around.
Do you follow a sports team?
Well, I don’t care for any team now – but in my youth I did station myself on the terraces at Portman Road, and now I’m going to live in Felixstowe, so I might ankle down to watch Ipswich.
Imagine you were in charge of discipline and sanctions, and you could introduce a creative new punishment. What would you come up with?
[Laughs] A conversation with MLJB about Shakespeare. I’d enjoy it, and I hope they would gain something from it. I’m very much against sanctions of any sort apart from the extreme sanction of parents and beaks concluding that this school isn’t the right place for the pupil. People should just reason for themselves… know what is right, and do it.
Is there another career path that you might have gone down?
I’m one of those teachers who always thinks he should not have been a teacher but is nonetheless glad that he was. Beaking at a school like this allows you to pursue your interests in the company of such wonderful people. It’s a great job… with some awful moments too, and stacks of marking! [Laughs]
What are your plans for the future?
Moving house. I think after divorce and bereavement, it’s the worst thing that can happen to a human being. I plan to do a lot of nothing and sit still and think. We’re going to live in a house less than three minutes’ walk from the sea, so I’ll be able to swim as often as I want to. I might write a book but I’ve got a hunch that I won’t, because I’m too lazy and haven’t in any case got anything worthwhile to say. I might do some gardening, join an am-dram society… go windsurfing for sure!
What will you miss most about Charterhouse?
The laughs! [Laughs]