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Johnstone McEwen (Mac) Mason

1918-1996 (STAFF 1958-61)

Andrew McEwen Mason writes:
My father Mac Mason's life was shaped by two profound experiences, one as a very young man and the other in middle age. As it happens, one led indirectly to the other.

Second World War
The first was his service as an RAF pilot during the Second World War. This gave him a life-long love of flying and a feast of memories and amusing anecdotes. It also almost killed him. As a result of a bad landing in 1941, he contracted ankylosing spondylitis, which at that time was almost unknown. He was in fact lucky to survive, but it left him with permanent crippling pain in his back (caused by the fusing of cartilage in the vertebrae), a particular blow to someone who had been a first-class sportsman. When he was finally invalided out of the RAF, the doctors recommended he take up a light, stress-free occupation. They suggested that teaching would fit the bill nicely (!), and he took to this occupation like a duck to water. He loved his work, despite all its stresses and strains, and I believe he was very good at it (that's what my Peterhouse contemporaries told me, anyway).

Unfortunately, during the 1950s his health deteriorated, exacerbated by the cold and damp of the English climate, and he was advised to move to somewhere warmer. He accepted a position as head of Geography at Peterhouse and thus in early 1958, at the age of almost 40, began his second formative experience. He absolutely loved the country, the climate and the life, more and more so as his body responded to the warmth (to the extent that within a year or two he could almost run again, whereas he could hardly walk when we left England).
His feelings about Peterhouse were less unambiguous. He was an educationalist as much as a teacher, and he was sometimes quite scathing about how Fred Snell had squandered what he saw as a golden opportunity to create something new and original which would fit the needs of a new country in a new era (particularly as Fred had access to substantial funding from Harry Oppenheimer). Instead, in my father's eyes, Fred had just produced in Peterhouse "an imitation of Winchester when he had been there, circa 1918". But despite that, he took a full part in the working life of the school at any rate.

Socially, I have a feeling that, being somewhat older than many of the other members of staff, he and my mother kept rather to themselves, with the exception of a few special friends such as Albert Muskett (music), Geoff and Margot Thomas (French), and Michael and Diana Beaman (Geography). He was, however, an enthusiastic participant in Fred's pre-term drinks parties for the staff, at which he always drank beer. The reason for this, he claimed, was that he had calculated that the cost of beer, per serving, was the highest of all the drinks on offer, and he liked to think that he was costing Fred as much as possible.

Tarisira Cottage
Contact with other staff members' families was not helped by the fact that we lived quite a distance from the main housing area, across the vlei which runs across the bottom of Monkey Hill in the house called "Tarisira cottage", which had been built in the late 1940s by the farmer who owned the estate before it was bought for Peterhouse. By 1958 it was rather decrepit but was nevertheless a marvellous home. My brother and I spent the school holidays alternately swimming in the "untiled, green slimy" swimming pool so well described by John Coates and roaming the estate with the dogs, of which we had two.

The first, a Scottie called Wimpy (after my father's beloved Wellington bomber - as he put it, they each had a short fat fuselage, low undercarriage and high upright tail) came out from England with us. In common with most of the staff's dogs, he didn't get on with the Snell's dachshunds Nuts and Bolts, but nor was he intimidated by them, to the extent that Fred remarked to my father one day, not entirely approvingly, that Wimpy was "a great character".
The other dog was a huge Great Dane cross called Caesar, who had belonged to the estate manager Bert Wiltshire till his death in a road accident. Caesar was a Peterhouse institution by the time we acquired him, notable for his sweet nature and intimidating bark. The latter kept us free of nocturnal intruders, while the former would have meant that anyone brave enough to try intruding would have probably been stunned by Caesar's 3-kilo tongue as he expressed his pleasure at having company.

Millfield School
My father was happier at Peterhouse than he had ever been anywhere else. Unfortunately my mother's health declined as his improved, and in 1961 Mac decided to leave. After a brief interlude in New Zealand, he took up the job of Director of Studies at Millfield School in England, where he worked from 1963 to 1972, during which period he and my mother divorced.
Marriage to Eileen Hathaway

In 1965 Eileen Hathaway, who was Fred Snell's secretary, left Peterhouse, and she and Mac married later that year. Mrs Hathaway was well-known to generations of Peterhouse boys, whom she used to invite to her house for huge and delicious afternoon teas.
Assistant Mother Superior
After leaving Millfield, Mac and Eileen returned to Zimbabwe, where he became "assistant Mother Superior" at Marymount Roman Catholic girls' school. During this period (the mid-1970s), my younger brother Robert attended Peterhouse (Ellis), thus renewing the family connection.

After a few years, they moved on again, this time to Australia.
The service doctors in 1944 had told him he'd never live to be 60, and would never leave his wheelchair; he celebrated his 60th birthday in Melbourne with his usual brisk walk, and shortly after had his first attack of angina, with which he lived quite amicably until his death in 1996 at the age of 78.

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