It is at least arguable that Eric Lawrie is one of the most travelled of all Old Bedalians. His peregrinations began from birth; brought up in Africa, the son of a father who lived “in the middle of nowhere” in Somaliland, while working for the Royal Society of Foresters, Eric’s earliest memories involve plenty of wearing nothing but shorts, roaming over termite mounds and swimming. “All my holidays were spent back in Africa, while my father worked on re-generating forests across the continent,” he recalls. “When the colonial days passed, Dad move onto the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome; meanwhile, I had been chucked into the cold September days of boarding school life in Hampshire, the possessor of an American accent and a crew cut!”
Despite the culture shock, Eric adapted quickly to Bedales life. “In 1970, Dunhurst seemed to be an extraordinarily strict place,” he says. “I remember the fearsome Mrs Boulter measuring my bath water level with a ruler to ensure that I hadn’t exceeded the regulation depth of two inches! That was a slight jolt to the system, but it was all part of the attempt to bring youngsters up properly and I soon decided that I could easily live with it. Ultimately, I would say that Bedales proved to be a pivotal part of my experience of life.”
As he progressed through the school, Eric threw himself into all aspects of the school’s culture. “Bedales offered me the chance to do things that I couldn’t have imagined at home,” he observes. “I did an astronomy O-Level, for example, looked after the school observatory and showed younger Bedalians how to plot sun-spot activity and photograph the moon. Patrick Moore was a tremendous inspiration; he lived about an hour away, down in Selsey, and we were driven down to visit him, where I had my first ever taste of brandy. Our physics teacher was a keen sailor, so I got into that as well, and I also did an electronics O-Level, where I learned to make a variety of gadgets, such as frost detectors.”
Eric’s particular enthusiasms were not exactly what Bedales is renowned for, but this, as he emphasises, was what made the school special. “It’s easy to stereotype Bedales as this hotbed of the arts, but it was much more than that. Bedales encouraged all-rounders, in my experience, and if you had a passion, you were given free rein to indulge it. Geography happened to be my favourite subject, of which Jonathan Watson was an outstanding teacher, but what other school would let you do an O-Level in Norwegian, as I was (Eric’s mother was Norwegian and his father half-Norwegian)? It was Bedales that also nurtured my lifelong love of photography and allowed me to become the head of the school photography club.”
Having fully imbibed the school’s free-thinking and independent ethos, Eric wasted no time in turning it onto his parents after leaving Bedales in 1977. “I rebelled by turning down a place at Oxford in favour of doing environmental studies at Bradford University,” he explains. “Everyone said I was mad, which made me all the more determined to seek out this unknown frontier for myself. Having a Bedalian accent in West Yorkshire didn’t make life especially easy for me, but I soldiered on and towards the end of my time in Bradford, I landed a job for a year with the Norwegian Polar Institute.”
Being helicoptered up to the glaciers, living in a hut and measuring ice and moraine movement during the week were the prelude to a leisurely ski down to the nearest town on Friday and raucous, drink-fuelled weekends. His time in the polar regions of the north also began Eric’s amazing global odyssey. “Amundsen is the great Norwegian polar figure, of course, and he was a great and meticulous planner of his journeys of discovery,” says Eric. “Years later, it was in that spirit that I spent two years planning, and a year actually performing, a bike trip across the Andes from Bolivia to Tierra del Fuego.”
Before Latin America loomed into view, Eric had explored other nooks and crannies of the globe. Two years in Sudan, teaching English in the desert, were a much more enjoyable alternative to the offer of a job from the British Antarctic Survey that Eric had received and turned down. “Too much sitting in an office for my liking, so I decided to go to the Sahara!” Eric laughs. From Sudan, it was off to Bhutan, the hidden Himalayan “Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon”, where Eric found himself teaching English to the younger members of the Bhutanese royal family and subsequently became, at the ripe old age of 24, headmaster of the local school of a yak-herding community. Finally back in the capital, Thimphu, and with a yen to find the next mountainous challenge, Eric asked the British Council (BC) whether it might have a role for him in Yemen. “They said ‘fire away’, so I spent two years there, again teaching English, meeting and travelling with people like the writer Tim MacKintosh-Smith and documenting the country with my camera,” he reflects.
Eric’s long Latin American sojourn followed. Ecuador, for eight years his base, was the scene of a number of hazardous mountain climbs, including that of Mt Sangay, the world’s most active volcano. It was also where Eric decided to start paying greater attention to a long-term career with the British Council. “About halfway through my stay in Ecuador, I became deputy director of the office there and started to oversee the training of English language teachers,” he says. The next port of call was Medellin, in Colombia, famous as the home of the notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar and at the time, one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. “We felt that we could help to build bridges there, so I opened the first BC office in Medellin and then moved on to Bolivia,” says Eric matter-of-factly.
Eric being Eric, he couldn’t fly to La Paz. “I suggested that the BC give me the fare and instead, I motorcycled from Colombia to Bolivia,” he says, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Bolivia was where Eric met his wife and also the place where he constructed his own house in typically forthright fashion. “I started by buying a hill,” he explains. “Then I built a road leading up to it, cut the top off the hill and built a house where the top had been.”
The post-9/11 world took its toll on a number of global institutions and the British Council was no exception. “It was decided that a number of lower priority offices would have to be closed and sadly, Latin America suffered quite badly in the ensuing reshuffle,” Eric recalls. It was now that Eric headed to Mexico for five years with a slightly different brief. “We wanted to showcase the British judicial system in a country where the French-based inquisitorial idea of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ held sway and true justice was comparatively thin on the ground,” he says. “Over the course of four years, we tried to persuade people of our case, we brought over British judges to back the persuasion up and eventually, the Mexican government passed a law which would install the British system of trial by jury and due process throughout Mexico.”
When Eric completed the circle of his life and moved back to Africa in 2007, it was as regional head of the BC, based in Senegal, but with responsibility for 14 countries across Francophone West Africa. As ever, Eric had inherited a powder keg. “There was civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, Al-Qaeda was getting worryingly strong in places like Mauritania and Mali was just about to burst apart, so there were some terrible problems,” he agrees. “The task, though, which still seemed so important, was to develop English language teaching for communities that had no such facility.”
That task remains Eric’s central focus as he embarks on his latest mission, this time as the Dubai-based regional head of English language programmes for the Middle East and North Africa, a remit which covers 17 countries. “I’ve just got back from Irbil, in Iraq, which is the capital of Kurdistan, and a place where people wish English to be their second language after Kurdish, rather than Arabic,” he says. “The intention is to organise things throughout the region so that English is better taught, the syllabus is better organised and we can have a really positive effect on people’s lives.”
Over the years, Eric has shown himself to be immune from bullets, pestilence and life’s other little vicissitudes. The question does occur of whether his safety ever worries his family. “Dubai is probably a bit less earthy than I’m used to, but it’s a nice, safe environment for my family, while I go off to places like Libya and so on,” he chuckles. “My wife is quite resigned to it now and she’s convinced that our children should be educated at Bedales as well, bearing in mind what the school did for me. It’s a character-building place, perhaps not for those who might regard it as too laissez-faire. However, it was the Bedalian spirit that allowed me to develop my passions, to learn to speak Tibetan and Arabic and Spanish and to have a life that has always been full of interest. What more could you ask for?”
Eric Lawrie was interviewed by James Fairweather in February 2014.