Travel: Charlotte Metcalf meets the men behind a fine culture course in Venice
In the Sixties, a Kent teacher set up one of the world’s finest cultural education experiences, a crash course in civilisation. He now runs it with his son. Charlotte Metcalf meets them
In late January, a group of some thirty-five young people from around the world will gather in Venice. It will be the fifty-third year of the residential John Hall Venice Course, offering daily lectures on everything from art and architecture to global politics and the Middle East.
The course has been described as ‘a crash course in world civilisation’. One parent has talked of sending off a grumpy, grunting adolescent and getting back a cultured, opinionated, articulate young man.
John Hall, who chucked in a career as a schoolteacher in Kent to found the course, is now eighty-five. Like his course, he is old but thriving. Charlie, John’s son (a fledgling oldie himself at fifty-seven) now mainly runs the course. John is still there for the duration, though he doesn’t do presentations any more because he forgets his words. ‘I have to use little triggers to remind me of the word I’m searching for,’ he chuckles. ‘Even the word “dementia” is hard enough to remember, but I think of demon and then I get there. Otherwise, I’m absolutely bursting with intellectual energy.’
John is as effervescent as he was when he set off with his first batch of students in 1965. ‘Back then, they arrived by train, all wearing tweed jackets and flannel trousers,’ John remembers. ‘Just two years later, they were turning up all Strawberry Fields and The Beatles, breaking out from school and into freedom with new attitudes. That was a fantastic year and especially good fun.’
The course was originally conceived for Oxbridge students who needed something to do in the months that followed seventh term exams. Back then it was called the Contemporary Europe pre-university Course for Oxbridge students, and dealt mainly with politics, economics, social history, philosophy and psychology. Gradually, meeting student demand, it incorporated more art.
Art remains at the course’s core but, John explains, ‘We have kept in of-themoment issues like terrorism and political upheaval, climate change, the roots of the Arab Spring and relevant science like the astrophysical scale of the universe, space and time.’
Some may pooh-pooh John Hall for his old-fashioned approach to education, suggesting that gap year pupils don’t want to spend hours confined to lecture halls. Yet John and Charlie are unapologetic for their uncompromising stand on academic rigour. ‘Parents spend far too much money sending their kids on gap years, to get off their faces at full moon parties in Thailand or backpack round the Outback or Latin America,’ says Charlie. ‘What’s the point? It’s more necessary than ever in this sleek, business-orientated world to learn to appreciate art and beauty. Who else is going to fall in love with our great European cities and sustain them for future generations?’
Students might balk at the crammed timetable but once there, John says they’re irresistibly drawn in: ‘However late they went to bed, they do turn up at lectures and are interested because when you’ve got them captured in such an enjoyable situation. They might have regarded opera as contemptible before they arrived but, after a lecture or two, they’re downloading Puccini or emailing their parents and asking them to buy Mozart CDS.’
The ‘super team’ includes: Nicholas Penny, ex-director of the National Gallery; Charles Hope, ex-director
Halls of excellence: John Hall, 85, and son Charlie, 57, in Venice