By Jo Henwood, Chester Chronicle
A retired classics teacher from Frodsham and a comic genius are heading to Greece on a ‘school trip’ today, years after both of them left school. JO HENWOOD talks to Douglas Cashin and Jimmy Mulville on the eve of their tour of the Peloponnese.
JIMMY Mulville, the man behind comic greats like Have I Got News for You?, Father Ted and Not the Nine O’Clock News,will try very hard not to call his travel companion ‘Sir’ when he embarks on a five-day trip to the ancient world today.
The Cambridge classics scholar will discover the secrets of Agamemnon’s Mycenae, Nafplio and the ancient theatre at Epidaurus with the help of his former schoolmaster and Cambridge classicist Douglas Cashin, who taught Latin and Greek at Alsop High School in Liverpool.
Mulville first came up with the idea of a school trip following a diagnosis of throat cancer nine years ago.
"People asked me if it made me reassess my life but it was more about preserving it," he said.
"I started to think about certain people who had helped me, who had brought something to my life.
"I contacted Douglas to find out what he was up to and he invited me to dinner."
When Jimmy was in the sixth form, Mr Cashin organised a school trip to Italy and Greece. The young Mulville was unable to go as he had landed a role in a Ken Loach film.
He reminisced: "It was after Kez. Needless to say, the start date was postponed and the film was eventually cancelled. I was devastated. I was no longer going to be a film star and and I was not going on the trip!"
After the reunion dinner, Jimmy suggested that they recreate that 1970s school trip.
"We decided to start with ancient Rome.
"Douglas had done his research and we had a fantastic time. I remember chatting to him on the steps of the Pantheon, overlooking the Piazza della Rotonda. You spend so much time with your teachers at school but never really know them. When I was 14, I thought all my teachers were ancient but I realise now that they were mostly young, very clever, men."
Other travel companions include Douglas’ wife Meriel and David and Lena Lang. David was PE teacher at Alsop and coached Jimmy for the Alsop basketball team, which had success at a national level.
Jimmy said: "David describes the staff room at Alsop as a ‘repository of knowledge’."
He went on: "We all came from ordinary, working class homes. Those of us who were good at languages were offered the chance to take up Greek but it meant giving up geography and chemistry. "My dad had an appointment with the headmaster Mr Warren, another classicist, to discuss the matter. When he came back he said: ‘That headmaster is marvellous, Jimmy. Did you know that there hasn’t been a Prime Minister of this country for the last century who has not been a classicist.’ No pressure there then!"
Since Rome, the duo have taken in the ancient sites of Athens, Delphi and Pompeii, where they mused over Virgil’s Aeneid in an underground pool.
Jimmy said: "I had read about this underground water system in Robert Harris’book Pompeii and thought it was fiction.
"After the main sites of Pompeii, Douglas announced: ‘We’re going to the Piscina Mirabilis.’ We had to pay ten euros to get the key from a grumpy Italian woman and descend 50 feet under the ground to this amazing underground cathedral.
"We rediscovered Book VI of the Aeneid, which we’d studied at school, where Aeneas enters the Underworld.
Douglas added: "Jimmy is a great raconteur and his mind is always making connections.
"There we were in this echoing atmospheric tunnel and Jimmy was tying up pieces of the text from Book VI."
"The book is beautifully constructed," said Jimmy. "I remember asking Mr Cashin at school what certain phrases meant and he replied then: ‘You’ll know when you’re older.’ He was right. "Life now is all about the pursuit of happiness but Virgil’s text teaches us that it is acceptable to be happy and sad at the same time."
They had originally planned to visit the ruins at Sabratha in Libya this year but the rebellion against Colonel Gadaffi put a stop to that.
Douglas continued: "Sabratha is a Roman town with an amazing theatre, which was restored when the Italians ruled Libya. It is just west of Tripoli and I just hope it won’t be damaged during the fighting."
The pair considered Jordan but decided it was probably best to avoid the Middle East at this turbulent time.
Both Douglas and Jimmy are passionate about the classics and bemoan the fact that schools no longer teach the subject.
Douglas said: "It is all about roots and the flow of history, placing things in context.
"It fits in with our understanding of our own language and helps us write good English."
Jimmy added: "We haven’t changed that much. When the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11 I said to a friend: ‘This heralds the beginning of the end of the American Empire. When the enemy comes right up to your shores and inflicts misery, that’s it . You only have to look at the fall of the Roman Empire."
Travelling with a comic has its funny side, however, when things don’t always go according to plan.
Jimmy recalls a trip to visit the Oracle at Delphi.
"We were walking up to the oracle and I noticed Douglas was limping. In fact, he couldn’t make it all the way up the hill to the stadium. It evolved that he had some sort of infection in his legs and ended up in hospital in Athens for two weeks. We had to leave him there so when I got home I sent him a copy of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes.
"In the play, which is set during the Trojan War, Philoctetes gets bitten on the foot by a snake. His foot gets really smelly so Odysseus leaves him on an island.
"I knew Douglas would appreciate the joke."