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

The Oldie - - NEWS -

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

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