The curious tale of Anton Bantock

Anton

There’s no warmer place on the Awhitu Peninsula than the living room of Tony and Jackie Logan. In fact, ‘warm’ doesn’t adequately describe it. When Tony gets his fire roaring it’s as close to the furnaces of Mordor as you’re likely to come this side of the walls of your imagination. You can rock up to the Logan place in three layers of clothing (which is sensible, because in winter it’s bloody cold in Awhitu), and after 10 minutes in the Logan front room you’ve taken off your coat and your Kathmandu cardy, and you’re tempted to strip off your T-shirt and sit there half naked. Not that Tony or Jackie (Jack for short) would mind if you did. They’re very accepting of people. Even half-naked ones.
‘We’ve been so looking forward to you turning up,’ says Tony.
Tony emphasises the ‘so’. It’s like this: ‘Sooo’. Tony is nothing if not theatrical.
‘Lovely having you here, mate.’
Tony will repeat this several times throughout the evening. Not because he’s forgotten he’s said it. But because he really means it.
It also might have something to do with the wine he’s drinking. Tony loves a glass of red in the evening. Whatever he was drinking when you arrived, he’s happy to set it aside and share yours instead. It doesn’t matter what you brought—a New Zealand pinot noir or a red from the Côtes du Rhone, yours will be better than Tony’s ‘rough red’.
‘Mmmm,’ he says. ‘Beautiful.’
Tony emphasises the ‘beautiful’. Like this: ‘Beeeeautiful.’
You’re always glad you brought a bottle of wine for Tony and Jack.
Jack’s in the kitchen. She’s making pizza. Usually. Actually, a couple of pizzas. If not three. With a Turkish bread base and Italian sausage and mozarella and capsicum and mushrooms and sometimes eggplant. And other things I can’t remember.
‘Mmmm,’ Tony says again. He means it and so he should. The pizza’s bloody delicious. Every single time.
‘It’s so nice to have you here,’ Jack says.
She’s flushed from the cooking, and the wine, but mostly the fire, which is so hot it leaves a tan. Jack sits in the chair that is furtherest away because if she sits in her favourite seat by the patio doors she will literally melt.
‘Have you been to Haddad Brothers?’ Jack says.
‘Who are the Haddad Brothers?’
‘It’s the most amazing store you’ll ever go into,’ says Jack.
‘In Otorohanga,’ says Tony.
‘They’re Jewish New Zealanders,’ says Jack.
‘I’d say they’re Muslim, Jack,’ says Tony.
‘Would you? I think they’re Jewish, Tone.’
‘Are they? Anyway, they’re either Jewish or Muslim.’
Tony lets out one of his guffawing, open-mouthed, full-throated laughs. It’s so infectious you can imagine Jesus himself laughing like Tony. If you picture Jesus as anything like Tony Logan, that is. Which I most certainly do. Even though Tony Logan is missing one of his two front teeth. When I say missing, he knows precisely where it is, but refuses to wear it. To Jack’s chagrin.
‘It’s the most amazing store you’ll ever go into,’ says Jack.
‘Oh, it’s world famous, mate,’ says Tony. ‘World famous in Otorohanga.’
‘One of the brothers is sharp as a tack,’ says Jack. ‘The other’s as sharp as a … blunt tack.’
We all laugh at that.
‘The shop is completely packed with alleyways of boxes,’ says Jack. ‘There might be a thousand pairs of jeans.’
‘I’m wearing a pair right now,’ says Tony. ‘These were posted up less than a month ago.’
More laughter. More pizza. More wine for my friends.
It turns out there’s a reason we’re talking about the Haddad Brothers at Otorohanga. It’s because of Anton Bantock.
It turns out Jack and Tony drove to Napier with Anton Bantock on a trip to see some potato weighers who lived there in a ‘mobile home’—an old Bedford ambulance. Afterwards they drove back through Otorohanga to show Antock Bantock the Haddad Brothers store.
It’s a fair bet that at some stage on any given evening in the Logan front room over a roaring fire with a bottle or two of wine that a story about Anton Bantock will surface. And no resistance here. Stories about Anton Bantock are endlessly entertaining, even when you’ve heard them before. A personal favourite is the one about a trip to Cape Reinga and a visit to Hazel, a woman Anton Bantock knew from Bristol, England, where she famously had the most untidy garden in the city. Their visit to Hazel featured a memorable walk along the beach, with Hazel walking two chickens with leads around their necks.
’She was very eccentric,’ says Tony.
Tony and Jack met Anton Bantock in Harlech, Wales, in the 1970s. Some friends from Darwin, Australia, had met him on the Trans-Siberian railway en route to London, and took Tony and Jack to meet him during a holiday to England. Some years later, Anton Bantock returned the favour, visiting the Logans in New Zealand. Problem was, they weren’t in New Zealand at the time. They were in Harvey Bay, Queensland. They got a forwarded letter from Anton telling them he was on his way … and that he would arrive tomorrow.
‘Tomorrow!’ says Tony, sounding as incredulous now as he was then. ’He didn’t know we were in Australia.’
Well, why would he? Why would anyone? What did you do?
‘I rang my father.’
Tony puts on his late father’s voice: ‘Logan speaking.’
Dad was so formal.
‘Hi Dad, can you do me a favour?’
‘Yes, son.’
Tony told his father about Anton Bantock, who was arriving in Auckland … tomorrow! Could he pick him up from the airport?
‘What do I do, son?’
‘Write his name on a piece of cardboard. Hold it up.’
And that’s exactly what dad did. And it all worked out!
‘I’m Anton,’ said Anton Bantock, arriving through the gate at Auckland airport, with a single satchel slung over his shoulder. ‘Who are you?’
They took Anton home to Little Huia. Tony’s mum couldn’t get his clothes off him quick enough to give them a wash. And to fix all the seams that were coming apart. Meanwhile, Dad put cardboard in his shoe to cover up the hole in his sole. While all that was going on, Anton put on his favoured jilaba. It was see-through, and when he stood outside in the Little Huia sun the light illuminated every inch of his slight, English frame. He was the most bizarre man they had ever encountered. And they loved him for it. They loved him so much they introduced him to mum’s siblings, and later in life mum and her sister went all the way to Bristol to visit Anton in his home in Withywood.
There are pictures of Anton Bantock all around the Logan house. Photos and original art works. A sketch of their daughter, Georgie. A water colour of their home and garden. He could draw anywhere, Tony says. Sketch anything. Jack brings out a plastic folder that contains Anton Bantock drawings and letters and Christmas greetings going back several decades. A line drawing of the Manukau Heads and the HMS Orpheus; a sketch of the Logan homestead seen from the top of West Coast Road; a hand-drawn Christmas card from 2013 showing the new renewable fuel stove at Anton Bantock’s home; a handwritten note discussing Anton’s hopes to travel soon:

So many questions: I can see that I shall have to come to N.Z. to see for myself; but not in your winter. My four visits to N.Z. were all in winter; so next time I’ll come in the summer — which means Jan. 2015. My travel pattern has changed in recent years:- it’s no longer ‘hit & run’ — but I stay a month at least. It’s lovely having no deadlines + no stress. I’ve slowed down a lot; still do all the things I need to – but in bottom gear.

So taken was I by the stories of Anton Bantock when I first heard them that I sought him out. It isn’t difficult to find him. I discovered that his home in Bristol is known as the University of Withywood, an epithet that only hints at the extraordinary life he has led. A secondary school teacher for most of his adult life, Anton Bantock is renowned for his travels across the world during summer breaks, especially throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia. No matter where Anton travelled he discovered an alarming lack of educational opportunities for children of developing countries. In 1964 he began sponsoring the education of two students—one in Syria, the other in Turkey. It didn’t stop there. He sponsored more students every year and in 1987, after taking early retirement, he converted his small bungalow in Bristol into an open house for lectures, exhibitions, summer plays and award ’ceremonies’. This was the University of Withywood. All Withywood events raised money for his sponsorship of students. In 1995 the Sponsorship Fund became a charitable trust and in 2003, Anton was awarded the MBE. To date, the Sponsorship Fund has enabled the education of more than 120 young students from developing countries. Many of those have gone on to be educators themselves. The more I read, the more I realised that Anton Bantock had conceivably impacted the lives of thousands of people across the developing world.
I came across an essay Anton wrote in 1968, or thereabouts. It’s called The Plan. It includes the following:

Happiness when pursued has an uncanny way of eluding us. If it becomes merely the pursuit of pleasure, it is not real lasting happiness. Happiness comes rather as a result of doing something worthwhile – creating something; loving someone, or people generally in the sense of selfless dedication to another’s need taking part in an activity with others which is worthwhile, exciting or amusing. In each case it means to a certain extent, losing sight of self. Almost in proportion to the degree that one does this, is one most sure to be happy. Very often, the happiest people are those whose personal happiness is furthest from their minds, and for whom the happiness of others is their main concern.

The essay ends with these words:

What really enslaves a man is being a victim of his own greed, selfishness and passions. To forego this is to become free from imperfect, man-made authorities. Your thoughts, words and deeds will be a result of conscious communication. Those who have achieved this will say that the effect is the opposite of servility. It is a liberating process which enables you to become the person you could be.

This was a man worth knowing. Not merely through the stories of friends over wine and pizza, but personally. I found Anton on Facebook and sent him a friend request. A couple of days later he accepted. With access to his Facebook wall I was able to see note after note from people testifying to what I knew about Anton Bantock from Tony and Jackie. Messages of love from across the world—people impacted by him, encountered by him, visited by him.
When I heard about Anton the first time, the image I formed of him was something of a Rumpelstiltskin figure. An elusive. A vagrant. An oddball. He may have been some of those things, but the character I encountered in the many Facebook notices was so much bigger than I’d imagined.
From Anton’s own writings emerges a man so humble, so human, that he leaves behind an almost Christlike sense of transformation wherever he lands. The following is an account, from Anton’s The History of the Sponsorship Fund, of one of the first children he sponsored all those years ago—the Syrian boy Yohia Nheli:

Yohia introduced himself to me, at the age of 14 or 15, as the head of a ragged band of Arab village children who gathered round curiously when I stepped down from an old bus outside the great crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, Syria (1964). As night was falling and there was nowhere to stay. ‘Tonight you will sleep in my house and tomorrow we show you the castle,’ he said.
His old mother and younger brothers made me very welcome. I slept that night on the flat roof of their one-room stone house, halfway along the village street of Hrat Trcman. Hurricane lamps were lit, dogs barked and down the mountainside a hundred or more prepared for the night on their beds of grain. No mattress was needed as the roofs of all the houses in that village were 3 inches deep in the grain stored there for the family’s winter consumption.
His mother brought up breakfast and bedding on her shoulder, climbing the bent olive tree, which served as a ladder. Yohia took me round the castle the next day and accompanied me down the mountainside to the desert road. He told me his father, like all the men in his village, worked ten months of the year on building sites in Kuwait. ‘I don’t want to carry cement on my body,’ he said, ‘I want to be a teacher like you, or an engineer.’
He flagged down a passing truck and I was given a lift to Damascus. Once I arrived I found my way to the Ministry of Education, housed in those days in an old building dating from Ottoman times. I demanded to speak to the Minister of Education and at last was shown into a big room with blinds drawn and stacks of yellowing documents piled high. There was a little man seated behind a large desk. ‘What can I do for you?’  He said, courteously. ‘There’s a boy of 14 or 15 in one of your villages who wants to be educated.’ I replied. ‘We provide free primary education,’ said the little Minister, ‘but we are a poor country. His parents must pay if he wants to study.’
When I returned home I wrote to Yohia. ‘How much will it cost to send you to secondary school?’  Back came the letter containing sweet-smelling herbs from the mountainside in Syria. The fees, transport and lodging (for he would have to go to the town Aleppo or Homs) fuel, oil for the lamp, books, for one year, would come to £64. I sent the money through my bank, not knowing whether it would arrive or what he or his father might do with it? Months passed. At last a letter arrived. He was in secondary school in Aleppo and the letter included an account for all monies spent.

Yohia became a high school teacher. Eventually he became the deputy head of a government school in the hills above his village. He played a key role in bringing electricity, water and drainage to his village, passing on his knowledge to the community. Following surgery for stomach cancer in 1997, Yohia died at the age of 49. Anton visited his village again soon afterwards, in 2000. Yohia’s son took Anton up the mountainside to see the pile of stones that marked his father’s grave.
‘I laid three geranium heads on it,’ Anton writes.
A week after I became friends with Anton Bantock on Facebook, he died, aged 82. It was 2015. Anton never got to visit the Logan homestead that summer. I never got to correspond with him as I’d intended.
Still, when I visit the Logans, as I do regularly—since their cottage is the best place in the world to write—we share a wine, and a pizza, and I listen again to the repeated stories of the man with a hole in his shoe and clothes that need a wash and seams that require a needle, who spent his life in service to others.
In the process he became all that he could be.

Anton’s work and the history of the Sponsorship Fund and the University of Withywood can be viewed at http://www.universityofwithywood.org.uk

2 thoughts on “The curious tale of Anton Bantock

  1. I was lucky enough to be taught by him. He used to tell us to be kind, and I have always tried to follow his example. An extraordinary man. I’m sorry you never met him.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s