The dedication of God’s Good Earth to my parents needs no comment, but it might be interesting to expand on the dedication to the late F. G. Gilbert-Bentley.
Francis Gregor Gilbert-Bentley (1914-2001) was the headmaster of the small private school I attended from age six until I went to grammar school. His charismatic teaching style aimed at making every subject interesting and accessible to us, particularly with respect to understanding that a picture is worth a thousand words. Accordingly, the classroom was papered with multi-coloured posters illustrating various mathematical procedures, French verb conjugations, and so on. Likewise, when illustrating Latin endings in lessons, the stems were separated from the endings on the blackboard by a beautifully chalk-drawn knife, invariably dripping with blood. And when the occasion demanded he could substitute the reading of thrilling Arthur Conan-Doyle short stories with ex tempore tales involving evocative characters of his own like the accident-prone Willie Muffet or Mustafa Banga, the Arab sausage-addict.
Mr Bentley’s colourful classroom manner corresponded to an equally broad and colourful personal history, much of which I’ve only discovered much later. He hinted at being in military intelligence in the Second War, and recounted adventures which always seemed just on the borderline of credibility. Yet what we knew was true was equally interesting. Various accomplished landscape paintings of his hung on the walls of the school, and on one occasion he spent a lesson with the smaller children drawing a large gypsy caravan in chalk – a picture that remained on the back of the board, as far as I know, till after I left.
His house, just across the road from the school, was filled with a collection of antique guns and swords – as well as an antique but operating candlestick telephone – all of which privileged pupils like me occasionally got to see when visiting his son, who was in the same class. The militaria hobby paid off in school when we were introduced to lessons in fencing and archery, which not many of my other friends experienced!
When he had to replace the name-board of his house, Mr Bentley carved a new one himself, the letters being surrounded by reliefs of nubile young ladies and comic characters. He was a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, a Fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society and a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, as well as being a member of the county Archaeological Society and a founder-member of the Greenwich Industrial History Society (that being his birthplace). Oh yes, and he had at least one letter published in New Scientist.
Even his name had a story – he had hyphenated his last given name and surname, he told us, to prevent his twin brother forging his cheques. Certainly the brother existed, because I met him once, back from Australia or somewhere else “in the colonies.”
He encouraged my creative writing greatly – though I have to say that the person who actually lit that particular flame was a Mrs Wood, far more conventional but a conscientious teacher. But his great gift was to encourage our interest in everything, from the nature of explosives to the natural world. Practical meteorology was part of the curriculum. He took enough personal interest in our work to enable me to turn a rather mediocre water-colour of a boxing match into a painting that was exhibited in a town exhibition.
I close this pen-portrait with an actual pen-and-ink drawing that says a lot about the man. As an insignificant eight-year old I had the usual autograph book containing no names more famous than those of my classmates, and boldly asked Mr Bentley to sign it too. He took it away for several days, and returned it with this double-page offering. The kid laughing on the fence is my brother, soon to move on from the school. Presumably I am driving the steam roller!