When I became a driving instructor, thinking it would be sensible to learn how to actually teach, I took a diploma course called Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning System. One thing I gleaned from the course was, and it’s pretty obvious anyway, is that people learn better if they see and feel the joy and purpose of a subject. That is why, to avoid boredom setting in, I take my pupils on occasional fun road trips.
One day I took Cherry Cuevas on a drive to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. In spring sunshine we drove along countryside roads edged with early emerging blossom. Brave birds flew low across our path, burdened with nest construction materials, clutched in their beaks. Lambs played alongside their dozing mothers in the fields we passed.
I stopped the lesson to give Cherry a rest. While admiring the gently rolling countryside we discussed how wonderful the area would be for walking our dogs. How, if she had a car, Cherry could bring her dogs to walk on the wooded Otley Chevin. She showed me pictures of her dogs, two border collies, Shadow and Calypso and told me that in her home country, the Philippines, dogs are not regarded as pets, only as working animals. Cherry, besotted with her dogs has embraced our dog loving culture.
I asked her if she had watched the film ‘Lassie come home’. Her eyes lit up. Yes, she said, she had seen the film and the television series. This is not surprising as the book and films were a worldwide phenomenon. The reason I mentioned the film was that the author of the book, Eric Knight, had lived in the village of Menston half a mile away from where we were parked. I knew exactly where. I had learned this interesting fact from another pupil who’s grandmother lived in the house, Carlrayne, where the author had been born on the 10th April 1897.
What I find surprising is that the recognition of Eric Knight’s life is quite low key in his home town; a plaque, bearing minimal information, on the wall of the the local library. Had my pupil not told me I would never have known he had been born in Menston, despite living there myself for two years. Knight was the youngest of three sons born to Frederic and Marion Knight. His father, a diamond merchant, was killed in the Boer War when Eric was two years old. His mother moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess for the imperial family before settling in America. Apparently, Eric was left in the care of an uncle and aunt in Yorkshire and emigrated to America in 1912 settling in Philadelphia.
Knight served as a signaller in the Canadian Army during WWI, then as a Captain of Field Artillery in the U.S. Army Reserve between the wars. When not in the armed forces he was an art student, a newspaper reporter and a Hollywood screenwriter. In 1943, when a major in the United States Army Special Services, Eric Knight died in an air crash.
Eric Knight published many books. His novel ‘This above all’ is considered one of the significant novels of the Second World War and his novel ‘Lassie Come Home’ set in Yorkshire was made into a film by MGM. Sequels and television series followed making Lassie a worldwide icon.
As I stood with Cherry, looking through the gate at the house where Eric Knight was born, I thought of the incredible story of this extraordinary man and his life. Is this, I wondered, a kind of literary snobbery. Is the author of story of a dog, enjoyed and loved by millions around the world not regarded as worthy of greater recognition.