Harry Mount

A nervous traveller

But there were moments of thrill too

A nervous traveller
Text settings

My 1982 photo album is full of pictures of a well-travelled, privileged 11-year-old boy. I was at North Bridge House prep school, a cream stucco Nash villa on the north-eastern corner of Regent’s Park, north London.

That photo album shows me, unsmiling, in a ski-pass picture on a family holiday in the Tyrol in January. In April, I went on a school trip to Normandy: there’s a picture of me sitting on the turret of an Allied tank overlooking the D-Day beaches.

But the holiday that really sticks in my mind from that year was a school trip to Amsterdam in October. There are only a few blurred pictures in my album — a canal, a windmill, the Rijksmuseum and a group picture of my year with our terrifying, brilliant form teacher, David Elwyn-Jones, standing in front of a rococo calliope.

Still, I have many more mental snapshots of that trip than any others that year. As I bring them together in my mind’s eye, I see a neurotic little boy tested by the worries of going abroad on a school trip. It’s those little bursts of anxiety that have burnt themselves into my memory — much more than the different sights in Amsterdam that accompanied them.

So when we went to the Rijksmuseum, I remember rather pompously taking deliberate time to stare at the pictures rather than race from comfortably padded banquette to banquette as my easier-going friends did.

I was a natural swot but this studied behaviour was unnatural; I recall the conscious effort of dutifully looking at the pictures more than I do the pictures themselves. I have a vague memory of seeing Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’. I’ve got a much sharper memory of Frans Hals’s ‘Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen’ — but only because I bought a postcard of it.

The Anne Frank House had a slightly stronger emotional effect because I’d just read her diary and found it gripping. Gripping but not moving: I thought it was completely heartbreaking when I read it again last year. But then, at 11, I was much colder. I was a hardworking boy, always at or near the top of the class. When it came to what they now call emotional intelligence, though, I was a bloody idiot.

My longest bursts of anxiety were at night. In our Amsterdam hostel, one boy in the dorm snored so loudly that I took refuge in the bath, a duvet draped over me.

There were two other momentary jags of anxiety. They were gut-wrenchingly agonising then, but now I’m really glad about them.

One walk happened to take us briefly through the red-light district. Normally, I was at the front of the group — goody-goody style — alongside Mr Elwyn-Jones and Miss Smith, the charming, gentle Yin to his teasing, spiky, inspired Yang.

On this walk, I was at the back with Antony, the naughtiest boy in class. Naughty in the best kind of way — irreverent, jokey and malice-free. He’d realised the essential comedy of school life — that, particularly in the absence of corporal punishment (not banned until 1998 in private schools but mercifully absent from my prep school), there was nothing really that bad teachers could do to you.

To an obedient boy like me, Antony’s blithe, breezy indifference to rules was usually glamorously exciting, but not infectious. Except on this occasion.

‘Have a look at this!’ said Antony.

He was standing in a black velvet-lined booth just off the street, pointing at a metal tube with an eyehole in it. He was laughing away, with a confidence that was astonishing even in him.

I’d noticed a few half-dressed ladies standing in windows but, as I was a long way from adolescence, they had little effect. I looked through the metal tube: the video showed a naked woman standing stock-still. She must have been moving — but I only looked for a fraction of a second before racing down the street with Antony after the group. I was thrilled, not by the naked woman, but by being naughty. Neither Mr Elwyn-Jones nor Miss Smith spotted us.

Later that day, I bought a knife with a fake pearl handle that had a painting of a canal on it. When we got the ferry home, I remember feeling another burst of anxiety at walking through customs with the knife in my bag.

But it was the vanishingly rare, naughty type of anxiety, thank God — not the old, familiar, nerdy, swotty variety.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin).