I’ve been blethering a lot in the run-up to Christmas, so something Miles wrote…
Here’s an anecdote for Christmas. The other day, one of these gloriously sunny, marvellously frosty days we’ve been having lately, my cockerspanial George was taking me for a long hike up The Crags. Having worked up a lather stomping through Hunter’s Bog and doublebacking across the top edge of The Crag’s lopsided tabletop, we took a breather about a third of the way down the northern descent back down to the Bog. It was a lovely eagle’s eye spot overlooking Holyrood Palace and the playing fields out back and affording, on this clear day, breathtaking views out across the Firth to Fife and along the coast to North Berwick. George was rolling in the long grass to cool off and his body steaming like a locomotive distracted me from my reverie. I looked at him, my muddy boots and then a small, flat rock set in the earth next to where I’d flopped. Into the face of the rock was carved the following:
“A R Sim 1919”
I wondered if this was the name of a person. I wondered if it had been carved by someone walking their dog almost 100 years ago. Then I wondered if the carver was Alastair Sim, the beloved British actor made famous by his comic roles in film classics such as The Happiest Days of Your Life, Laughter in Paradise, The Belles of St Trinian’s, The Green Man, School for Scoundrels, and, most famously of all, the brilliant 1951 version of Scrooge. I love all these films and I love the delightfully quirky, oddly creepy comic genius of Alastair Sim.
Back home, hot cuppa in hand, George groaning contentedly on the sofa, I did a wee bit of research in an attempt to establish the provenance of the miniature menhir. I knew that Alastair Sim was an Edinburgh boy. I found that he was born in October 1900, attended school at Bruntsfield Primary, James Gillespie’s Highschool and George Heriot’s and worked part-time at his father’s business, the men’s outfitters Gieve, where he displayed no talent whatsoever for shop work. In 1918, he was accepted by the University of Edinburgh to study chemistry, but his fledgling academic career was put on hold when he was called up for military training (in 1948, after another World War, Sim returned to became the rector of the University).
Happily, the First World War finally came to end in November that year and Sim was released from service. He returned home and told his parents he did not intend to resume his studies, because he had decided to become an actor. This news was not well received and precipitated young Sim’s leaving of the family home to spend a year in the Highlands working with itinerrant workers. By the end of 1919 Sim was back in the Burgh, where he found work as a clerk in the borough assessor’s office. From there, he launched himself into public performance with poetry readings, which lead to work as an elocution teacher, which, in turn, spurred Sim on to found a drama school for children. It was while teaching kids to act that Sim’s own talent was spotted and his life as a professional performer began. The rest is, as they say, history.
My modest, tea-fuelled research might not have established beyond doubt the provenance of that rock up on The Crags, but it certainly suggests it was quite possible that Sim carved his name on it. If I had just fallen out with my parents over my choice of career and was perhaps contemplating leaving home to become an itinerrant worker, maybe I would take a long hike up The Crags and maybe I would sit on the top and stare out to sea and maybe I would, faced with big change and an uncertain future, carve my name for posterity.
On the other hand, Sim was a notoriously private person. He refused to give autographs. Would he have carved an autograpgh for all eternity? So maybe “A Sim” is Arnold Sim or Anthea Sim. Also the R is a problem: Sim’s full name was Alistair George Bell Sim. No R there. Perhaps he had a secret name such as Roderick or Rupert or Randolph? Perhaps he was carving a B and simply didn’t finish. But does it matter? That rock MIGHT be Alistair’s. And it’s in a beautiful spot. So if you fancy a walk over Christmas you could do worse than go searching for “A R Sim 1919” and take a breather to enjoy the view.
Anyhoo, I’ll shut up now and leave you with a few eloquent words from the elecution teacher himself that we might mull over during the festive break from everyday life: “It was revealed to me many years ago with conclusive certainty that I was a fool and that I had always been a fool. Since then I have been as happy as any man has a right to be.”
Happy Christmas all,