Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Ray Mears, survival expert
Thursday 20 September 2007
Ray Mears, 43, runs the Woodlore School of Wilderness Bushcraft. His TV series include Tracks and Extreme Survival. The Wild Food DVD and book are out this month, when he also begins his In Front of and Behind the Lens tour
At Downside Lodge, in Purley, Surrey, I remember dropping an encyclopaedia and accidentally tearing out a page as I grabbed at it. I can still see that page: it was on "Our ancestors and how they lived". It was a very good school, with that old-fashioned, Thirties feel.
I then moved down the road to the prep-school part of Downside. This was nothing to do with the well-known Catholic boarding school of that name; this was a day school, which I think was a good thing. The mischief – no, adventures – you get up to outside school are very important. I grew up on the North Downs, and used to track foxes and stay outside overnight. Kingsley Hopkins, who taught judo, was a mentor and the most important influence on me; he had been taught by the man who brought judo to Britain. Judo is a very special martial art, a great leveller that basically teaches you how to fall over. It's like chess but it's physical so you can let off steam.
I enjoyed Downside – although I didn't enjoy Latin, a waste of time and the way it was taught was a nonsense, going round the class conjugating Latin verbs. And geography was taught poorly: notes were dictated to you. I wouldn't dream of using that method on my bushcraft courses, which I have been doing for 25 years. It puts people off. You have to enthuse, and make it relevant, as our science teacher, who had worked in the chemical industry, did. The maths teacher taught geometry by teaching navigation, which is a vital skill in my life. If I couldn't navigate on canoe trips and in jungles, I'd never get home from the back of beyond.
From Downside I went to Reigate Grammar, which was very good. I had a great French teacher, and, later, having travelled in French-speaking Africa, where you are arrested on a daily basis, my French improved dramatically! He also taught Russian, and I even took a few lessons in Mandarin.
Having done really well at chemistry, I dropped it – a great shame. It was taught badly by a teacher who had written the most boring textbook ever. Biology was taught well and has always interested me. I was lucky: I had an interest in nature and had started to teach myself about trees and plants – but not what was on the syllabus. Later, the teacher said, "If only I'd known," and I said, "You never asked".
I'm single-minded and have no trouble teaching myself; normal lessons were often an impediment. (I'm still learning: there isn't a day when I don't learn something.) I took an interest in photography in my teens, and in my early twenties I taught myself to be a professional photographer: the camera became my diary.
Some of my best teachers have been native Canadians, Australian Aborigines, Kalahari bushmen: people who have been living the original life and using traditional skills. It is a great sadness that four of them, all from different continents, have recently died. They were "first contacts", that is, from communities that had never met white people.
I did English A-level: I cannot stand Jane Austen but loved Chaucer and Shakespeare. Maths with statistics was a disaster, and I don't think I got it. I did get business studies, which had nothing of any use to me. I didn't go to university because at the time there was nothing I wanted to study. Today, there would be ethno-botany, for example.
When I was working in the Operation Raleigh office, a Chinese man came in hoping to sell paintings on silk. I managed to say a few words in Mandarin but then he held up a piece of paper on which he had written "Deaf and Dumb". I've never bothered with Mandarin since.
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