Wednesday, 24 July 2019

housey! housey!

I was walking from Tai Wai station towards Che Kung Temple, one of the best-known such edifices in Hong Kong, in February when I passed a school. I couldn’t help but notice the names posted on one wall:

All six names are well known, although apart from their being the names of the school’s six houses—and the original bearers being famous—it would be difficult to identify a hard connection between them. There are three scientists, a moral campaigner, an explorer and an artist.

The junior school that I attended between 1953 and 1957 had four houses, all named after local mountains: Blencathra (blue); Crossfell (red); Helvellyn (green); and Skiddaw (yellow). The local grammar school, which I attended from 1957 to 1964, had just three, two of which—Lowther (yellow) and Blencowe (green)—were the names of local village grammar schools that were amalgamated with the town’s school at some point in their history. The third house—Tudor (red)—is a nod to the royal dynasty in power when the school was founded.

When I worked at the Eskdale Outward Bound Mountain School from 1971 to 1972, each group of twelve students, known as a ‘patrol’, was named after a famous explorer. I can’t remember all the names used, but both Scott and Shackleton were represented. The following year, at the Moray Outward Bound Sea School, I found that the ‘watches’ were named after famous seafarers such as Drake and Nelson.

It’s obvious that these names were intended to be inspirational, so it was something of a surprise to discover that the watches at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School were merely named after local mountains (Tai Lam Koi, Nam Tse Tsim, Tai Mun Shan and Ma On Shan) that the students would climb during a course. There was no inspirational component whatsoever.

However, the men—there are no women in the group—after whom the six houses that are named in the above photograph must have been chosen specifically to inspire their members. After all, William Wilberforce’s main claim to fame is that he was the leading campaigner against slavery in the British Empire. Fridtjof Nansen was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work helping displaced persons in the aftermath of the First World War, although he is probably better known for his exploration of the Arctic and his contributions to the science of oceanography.

On the other hand, I would consider Alexander Fleming and Ernest Rutherford to be relatively obscure personalities. Yes, Fleming did discover penicillin, the first antibiotic, and Rutherford was identified in the popular press as the man who ‘split the atom’, thus proving that despite the original Greek meaning of the word, atoms are not indivisible. I would have been more inclined to choose Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin if asked to nominate two British scientists, but perhaps these two are just too well known.

Nobody is likely to quibble over the inclusion of Albert Einstein, undoubtedly the most famous scientist of the twentieth century, but Leonardo da Vinci does seem to be a fish out of water here. He was a very clever man who dabbled extensively in futuristic thinking, although he is probably best known for paintings such as Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. His inclusion would seem to reflect the breadth of the school’s curriculum and the fact that the arts are important.

However, if I’d been the one choosing six inspirational house names, I would not have included any of the six I’ve been discussing here. In addition to Newton and Darwin, I would have nominated Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Shakespeare, Michael Faraday and Joseph Mallord Turner (or Galileo Galilei to replace Turner if I’m not required to restrict my list to British nominees). I imagine that most readers will have their own nominees.