Goodbye to Major Geoffrey Langlands of the Hindu Kush
Neil Tweedie, Published: 30 March 2013
The Daily Telegraph
Five years separate Major Geoffrey Langlands from his centenary, so it was to be expected that he would remain in his chair during the show marking his retirement from the school high in the Hindu Kush that bears his name. Yet, even at the age of 95, the old boy is far too wily to let a photo opportunity slip by. When pupils of Langlands School and College broke into a folk dance from their native Chitral, he was up, walking stick discarded, twirling around, hands raised above his head. The boys and girls of the school whooped with delight as their old principal temporarily abolished the passing years, mobbing him as he danced. Langlands, last survivor of the Raj, certainly knows how to work a crowd. "How do you follow that?" asks Carey Schofield, the woman who arranged the surprise party in Langlands' honour on Tuesday. "It is very hard to take over from the Major. He is quite literally irreplaceable."
Geoffrey Douglas Langlands CMG is a phenomenon. When the British pulled out of India in 1947, he stayed on, first as a soldier instructing Pakistan's fledgling army and then as a teacher to that country's youth. Generations of Pakistanis owe their education to him. In a career lasting 60 years, he has sought to maintain the ethos of the English public school in an alien land, long after the sun set on the empire he served. Britain has changed out of all recognition since Langlands departed its shores in the middle of the Second World War to serve with the Indian Army. By going away and staying away, his old-fashioned brand of Britishness, involving service rather than gain, has been preserved.
Now at last, he is retiring and handing over control of his school. Miss Schofield, author of several books, has taken on the challenge of replacing a man regarded as a legend in Pakistan, if known hardly at all in Britain.
The process of finding a successor to the Major has been a tortuous one. For years now, candidates for the job of principal at the college he founded a quarter of a century ago have come and gone, backing out at the last moment. Security has been the main concern. Chitral, a former princely state hemmed in by towering peaks, is an isolated corner of the North-West Frontier bordering Afghanistan, and thus potentially vulnerable to incursions by the Taliban. Only now, as Langlands nears his century, has his job been filled, somewhat to his regret. In post for only a few weeks, Miss Schofield has forsaken her home near London's fashionable Sloane Square for a mountain fastness. So why, at the age of 59, has she abandoned an enviable lifestyle in Britain to come here?
"Because it would be nice to make a difference," she says, speaking for the first time about her new job. "It is good in middle age to be able to do something useful. The College and its associated primary schools educate a thousand pupils. If we can turn them around it will improve a thousand young lives. The job is daunting but worth doing."
And the Taliban? "Chitral is safer than Chelsea. There have been a few incidents but most of them involve goat rustling, not terrorism. There was a bad incident in 2011 when members of the Chitral Scouts were killed during an attack from Afghanistan but that was further south. Chitral is unlike the rest of the North-West Frontier, more tranquil. The risk is very slight."
Langlands has shown a similar lack of concern. There is something poignant, solitary, about him. Born in 1917, with a twin brother, he lost his father almost immediately to the great flu pandemic of the following year. His mother succumbed to cancer when he was 10 and he and his brother and younger sister were left in the care of grandparents. The kindness of a family friend allowed him to be put through public school at King's College Taunton. With no money, university was out of the question and teaching followed. A mathematician, Langlands was working in a private school in Croydon when war broke out in September 1939. Joining up immediately, he was selected for the commandos, taking part in the disastrous Dieppe Raid in 1942. Following his commission, he was sent to India, and life changed forever.
Attached to the Pakistani army for six years following independence, and with no wife to return to in England, Langlands decided to stay on, transferring back to his old profession. As a teacher at Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan's answer to Eton, he became mentor to the country's elite, including a less than assiduous pupil by the name of Imran Khan. A period in Waziristan, a lawless Pashtun province, followed, during which the Major was kidnapped by a disgruntled warlord. Then, for the last quarter of a century, there has been Chitral, his mountain home.
Now, Langlands is returning to Aitchison, where rooms have been prepared for his "retirement". Having earned a pittance during his teaching career – the principal's salary at Langlands School and College is 35,000 rupees a month, or about £220 – he must rely on the generosity of his former employer. But as preparations for his departure have progressed, it has become clear that the Major does not want to go. "I want to stay," he says, in a voice still strong but punctuated by long pauses. "But it has been decided that I am of more use in Lahore helping to raise money for the College."
Miss Schofield is never less than complimentary about the Major, praising him at every available turn for his contribution to education in Pakistan. But the truth is that the Langlands School and College is in something of a mess. Understandably for a man of his advanced years, Major Langlands has allowed things to slip. Miss Schofield is attempting to rejuvenate an institution lacking money, books and teachers capable of conducting lessons in English, supposedly the school's raison d'etre.
Although a fee-paying institution, the College is in dire need of cash. Fees are minuscule by western standards – maybe four to nine pounds a month – but many parents escape them by pleading poverty. Invariably, when parents asked that fees be waived on such grounds, Major Langlands agreed. The result is a financial black hole only now being delved into by a firm of auditors in Lahore. "I have no firm information until the completion of the independent audit I have commissioned but I know the financial situation is pretty precarious," says Miss Schofield. "The headline fact is that even if all families paid fees we would not have enough money to pay the teachers."
Signs of decay are all around. The college library is a small collection of dusty old books, and the power supply extremely erratic. There is no school hall, no internet and no heating to soften the bitter Himalayan winter. Computers donated by a school benefactor last year gather dust for want of someone to install them. Above all, there is a palpable sense of drift. Many of the 50 Pakistani teachers at the Langlands schools cannot speak English properly and lessons are often conducted in Khowar, the language of Chitral. Miss Schofield has found herself wading through interminable conversations, trying to get straight answers about the state of the school.
"You need structures," she says. "Step by step, you must impose order. My allies are the teachers here. They are not perfect – I am not perfect – but they care about the students. This is an English-language school and we need to improve the level of English, and for that we need English teachers."
Miss Schofield wants new backers for the College and new teachers, ideally from Britain. "Keen graduates would do, or in my dreams, young teachers in search of adventure. Or maybe people like me, in search of a life change." What should they expect? "The unpredictable." And the pay? "They wouldn't starve, that is all I can say."
But why come to this remote place? The answers are all around. The College sits on high ground, commanding a view southward towards the fortress town of Chitral – and what a view. On clear days the mountains gleam, great, slab-sided monuments of white streaked with black granite, towering over lower slopes. In the valley all is green, houses dotting tiny fields crammed with crops. Cultivable land is at a premium in Chitral, but never beauty. When the clouds come, grounding the tenuous air-link with Peshawar and Islamabad, they hang on the mountainsides. One can stand on the rough piece of ground that passes for the College cricket ground and look down on clouds, not up.
Chitral oozes history. It was the last piece to be added to the jigsaw that made up British India, the arena for the closing stages of the Great Game which had seen Britain and Russia vie for advantage in the mountain passes guarding the routes from Central Asia to the subcontinent. In 1895, a small British force found itself besieged in Chitral Fort, overlooking a bend in the River Kunar. The field guns that kept the besieging tribesmen at bay are still there, pointing rustily towards an unseen enemy. Inside, an ornate dining room gathers dust, decorated with portraits of long-dead turbaned princes and framed letters from equally dead British viceroys.
"I love Pakistan and Chitral is the best of Pakistan," says Miss Schofield. "People here are friendly and life is infinitely interesting – there is always something going on, so many layers. Pakistanis, and Chitralis in particular, are warmer than we British, hopeless in lots of ways but inclusive and truly welcoming. There is a joyful approach to life. Sometimes I try to adopt a stern countenance in meetings when expressing displeasure at this or that, but always find myself smiling in the end. It is impossible to be angry for long with such people."
Language barriers aside, British teachers would be pleasantly shocked when dealing with the pupils at Langlands. Rudeness to a teacher is almost unheard-of and a visitor is greeted time after time with the words "Good morning, sir" or "Good morning, madam."
The Britishness of the school – grey trousers and jumpers for the boys – is tempered by Muslim sensibilities. The girls, who wear white headscarves, or hijabs, are educated in a separate building at the College. The best of them beat the best of the boys academically, but they are in a minority. Langlands has some fine success stories among its former pupils but not enough, and Miss Schofield wants more. "It's worth coming to help here," she says. "The children are bright and the place is amazing. They have respect for their elders."
Gaining the trust and respect of the teaching staff will take time. Miss Schofield – the pupils still battle with her name, preferring "Showfield" – has yet to meet some of the more elusive ones. In the 21st Century, a Pakistani school run by a British principal and functioning in the English language may be regarded by some as a patronising anachronism but teachers at the school recognise the value of operating in the 'world language'. Rehmat Abdullah, the College's biology teacher is a confirmed fan of the new principal.
"Without getting English education in science and technology we cannot advance as a country," he says. "To be a dignified nation we need this. There may be a few elements who oppose it, but few."
Down in Chitral town, with its busy bazaar and muddy, poorly-paved streets, lie the three primary schools that make up the rest of Miss Schofield's new empire. The children in the playgrounds are happy but the classrooms in these converted houses are dark and dank, lacking natural light. There is no power and the children strain to read their books.
Shahida Azeen, one of the three primary school heads answering to Miss Schofield, earns just £140 a month. The lack of money for good teachers is, she says, stark in comparison with state schools.
"Things are very tough," she says. The very low salaries mean teachers must adopt the attitude of missionaries, working for the good of the children rather than themselves."
What of a female principal? Is there resistance locally to a woman being in charge? "Chitrali men are very gentle and kind," says Mrs Azeen, "so there will be no problem with a female principal." And the fact that she is British, a foreigner? "Totally not. Major Langlands is the most favourite person of the Chitrali people. The security he has is a formality – he does not need security at all. We have had very good experience with British people."
Miss Schofield has inherited Major Langlands' bodyguard but insists on a more discreet presence. Her personal protection officer is dressed in civilian clothes and does not brandish the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. Her best defence, however, resides in the alertness of the local population to strangers. Foreigners are rarities here. In 2001, before 9/11, there were 2,500 visitors to Chitral. After the attacks, in 2002, that number plummeted to 320. Last year, the figure was just 530. There are few Westerners to be seen, apart from those working on development projects.
Major Langlands is due to take up residence in his retirement home this weekend but he will still influence events in Chitral. As chairman of the College trustees, he oversees the endowment fund that produces about £40,000 a year in income.
Geoffrey Langlands refuses to simply disappear. For him, retirement is a wholly alien concept. There are things still to do, not least mastering the iPad given to him by a well-wisher. And there is no doubt about his continuing popularity, despite the problems he is leaving behind.
"We pay tribute to Sir G D Langlands and, dear fellows, his remarkable services," proclaimed one of his pupils at the leaving event. "Dear sir, you are leaving Chitral but will always be in our hearts."
Geoffrey Langlands is due to take up residence in his retirement home this weekend (Pic: Paul Grover)
Will he be sad in Lahore, away from his beloved mountains? "I like it wherever I am," he says. "When people say, 'Which place do you like best of all?', I always give the answer that came from my grandmother: I like best the place where I am."
He has already selected his final resting place.
"Pakistan, definitely. No one in England knows me. They are already choosing me a plot in the Christian cemetery in Lahore. I said that it must be near the main gate because some people would not like to walk through a Christian cemetery."
And there you have it: Geoffrey Douglas Langlands, an Englishman forever abroad.
Published: 03 September 2012
Geoffrey D. Langlands was awarded a life time achievement award by Ispru Youth Forum Chitral (IYFC) in the opening session of its third Youth Convention held in Booni on August 24, 2012. Students from different schools and colleges of District Chitral participating in the convention gave standing ovation to Mr. Langlands in recognition his lifelong services.
Speaking on the occasion Major Langlands shared memories of his quarter century old association with Pakistan and in particular with Chitral. He emphasized on the importance of learning English and employing it as a vehicle in the modern world of science and technology.
The opening session of the convention was also attended by the representatives of Aga Khan Rural Support Program Chitral, Mountain Institute for Educational Development, AKF Afghanistan, UNICEF Pakistan, Aga Khan Hospital Afghanistan, Hashoo Foundation, a German undergraduate student of anthropology and local community members.
Class, say hello to Miss Chips of the Hindu Kush
Margarette Driscoll, Published: 17 June 2012
The Sunday Times
The privations of life in northeast Waziristan — even without the threat of violence spilling over the border from Afghanistan — would be enough to challenge the most intrepid of women, let alone one who currently resides in a comfortable flat in Chelsea, west London.
But, come September, Carey Schofield, a writer on military affairs, plans to swap the King’s Road for Chitral, a small town at the foot of Tirich Mir, the highest peak in the Hindu Kush. She will have just a couple of months to settle in before her new home is cut off by snow until the spring.
Schofield is no more daunted by the prospect of running a school — she is to take over as principal of Langlands school and college from Major Geoffrey Langlands, who is retiring, aged 94 — than she is by the knowledge that every other candidate for the job turned it down, scared off by the loneliness or the threat of violence or kidnap.
You won’t find Schofield, 58, surrounded by bodyguards. In fact, her insouciance over the prospect of living alone in Waziristan is the first clue to why the major considered her the right chap for the job. “The lower key you are, the better,” she says, firmly. “You sometimes see foreigners, especially Americans, clattering around with armed guards and big cars, but if you do that, you just attract attention.”
In any case, she says, living alone in a place such as the Hindu Kush “is almost a luxury. It’s so beautiful and the Chitralis I have met are all so friendly and calm and considerate. I doubt I will stay until I am 94, but I think I am going to like it.”
Langlands, who has been running the school for 30 years, came to Britain in search of a successor two years ago. Stepping into his shoes was a big job for anyone: known as “Pakistan’s Mr Chips”, Langlands is a living legend in his adopted land.
Having arrived as a soldier in the second world war, he eventually returned to his former career as a maths teacher and taught at Aitchison college, Pakistan’s Eton, where his pupils included the Pakistan cricket captain turned politician Imran Khan.
“The major is a phenomenon,” says Schofield. “Wherever you go in the Pakistan community there’ll be a distinguished professional who’ll say he was taught maths by Major Langlands. He is not just admired but loved.”
In the 1980s Langlands took a post in remote Chitral. He slowly built up a traditional English-style school along the lines of his alma mater, King’s College, Taunton, which now has 1,000 pupils — 350 of them girls — and has sent many to the world’s finest universities.
In 2010, aged 92, he decided that it was time to find someone to take on the day-to-day running of the school. Schofield, a member of Britain’s Pakistan Society and author of a book about the Pakistan army, was asked to organise a fundraising cricket match for the school and help find a successor.
“I ransacked my address book and kept pestering away,” she says. “The major’s idea was someone who had been in the army, but if they were just coming out, they had served in Afghanistan and wanted to come home, or they had families who did not want to relocate to the Hindu Kush. In the end, in exasperation, I said to the major’s assistant on the phone, ‘If I was a man I’d do the job myself.’ There was a silence on the other end of the line; then he said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ and hung up.”
Schofield, a contributor to Oxford University’s Changing Face of War research programme, moved to Islamabad to research her book on Pakistan’s military eight years ago, when her marriage broke up. “Pakistan was a great gift to me, as it offered me a new life,” she says. “I did not have to go out to make new friends; I was very simply and painlessly living in a different world.”
Islamabad has changed a great deal since then, not for the better. “The city is almost unrecognisable,” Schofield says. “It was much more relaxed back then. They’ve become sharply aware of the constant security threat. So there are roadblocks and constant warnings, particularly to foreigners, about where you shouldn’t go.”
The soldiers she spoke to were “very aware that the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan was likely to spill over, and they quickly became aware that the coalition presence was radicalising quite ordinary people in Pakistan”. That process has continued? “Absolutely . . . it has got worse and worse.”
Schofield seems confident that the violence will not seep into Chitral. “It’s on the frontier but it’s not in the tribal areas; it’s an old princely state, a sort of Shangri-La,” she says. “There has been a bit of trouble, but very little and very contained. The Chitralis wouldn’t welcome militants.”
One would imagine they wouldn’t be too welcoming to a lone western woman either, but “Pakistan isn’t like that”, Schofield says. Indeed, after the “We’ll get back to you” from Langlands’ assistant, the major sounded out the teachers to check that they would accept a woman as principal: the answer was a unanimous yes. “Pakistan has had a woman prime minister; it has always had a number of women ministers. My closest friends in Pakistan are all single, professional women who do whatever they want,” Schofield says. “Oddly, it’s a very easy place for a woman to operate.
“There are parts of Pakistan that nobody would go to . . . nobody goes to the tribal areas without permission and a particular reason. There are parts of the cities where you would be careful, but that’s true of England. The way you dress matters a bit. I don’t cover my head in the cities, but in the country, yes. If you dressed in a way that embarrassed local people, you’d be stupid.”
She visited the school last autumn and was impressed by its order and calm (though not the perilous mountain road leading up to it, which she has ordered to be resurfaced). Her chief qualification for the education side of her new job is having been a governor at primary schools in London.
Despite the poverty of many of the children who attend Langlands, Schofield believes they have some advantages over their British counterparts. “The world is different there because they are old-fashioned children. Their families are secure and extended,” she says.
“The problems we had here as governors were not with the education of the children but with the lack of support from families. In Chitral, there’s a sense that a good education is a key to a successful life. The children are so motivated, it is really wonderful to see.”
Briton There at Pakistan’s Birth Stays at 94, a Living Textbook
By Declan Walsh, Published: June 8, 2012
The New York Times
CHITRAL, Pakistan — During a grand gathering of tribal elders in this rugged and remote mountain district recently, one guest of honor stood out: an elderly Englishman in a suit and polished shoes, his snowy hair carefully combed, the morning newspaper folded on his lap.
That man, Geoffrey D. Langlands, has had a front-row seat on Pakistan’s many dramas since he arrived, at the country’s chaotic birth, 65 years ago. He has taken tea with princesses, dined with dictators, been kidnapped by tribesmen and scraped through several wars.
Now, at 94, Mr. Langlands, a former British colonial officer who retired with the rank of major, and a lifelong educator, is striking out on a fresh adventure: retirement. For the past quarter-century, his home and work have been in Chitral, a sweeping district of snow-dusted peaks at the northern tip of Pakistan. The institution he ran here, the Langlands School and College, has become a watchword for excellence; each year, the best of the school’s 1,000-plus students, one-third of them girls, go on to universities in bigger cities, the United States or the United Kingdom. That success is all the more startling for its setting in a region awash with violence and intrigue: to the east of Chitral is the Swat Valley, where Pakistan’s army fought Taliban insurgents in 2009; to the west lies the Afghan province of Nuristan, where American troops have seen some of their toughest combat. Some years ago mysterious Americans turned up in town asking questions about Osama bin Laden; locals said they worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
But for “the major,” as he is known, this has been a cherished chapter in a life that has mixed adventure and arithmetic in his adopted homeland. He is turning to the next one with a discernible touch of reluctance. “Time to take life a little easier, I suppose,” he said, sitting on a terrace overlooking a broad valley dotted with modest, tin-roof houses. Then he sat up. “But there’s still so much to do.” Doing nothing has never been an option for him.
Mr. Langlands fought in a commando unit during World War II, assaulting German defenses on the French coast. In August 1947, he was stationed in British India, where he witnessed the bloody partition of the subcontinent at close quarters. Stuck at station on a train filled with Hindu refugees, he came under fire from Muslim gunmen; farther down the line, he saw Sikhs attack a mosque. “It was terrible,” he recalled. “Nobody knew what to do.”
After the other British left, Mr. Langlands stayed on, taking a teaching job at Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan’s most prestigious boarding school. Over a quarter-century there, he imparted algebra to the offspring of the Pakistani elite, some of whom went on to lead in politics, sports and the military. Former charges include Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who was prime minister between 2002 and 2004, and Imran Khan, the cricket hero turned politician. “He stood out,” Mr. Khan said. “He had this mixture of being firm yet compassionate.”
In 1979, he moved to North Waziristan, in the tribal belt, to run a school in a district that is today better known for American drone strikes — Al Qaeda’s deputy leader was reported killed there on Monday.
Mr. Langlands, however, remembers the tribesmen as rascals more than villains. At one point, he said, tribesmen held him hostage for six days in a bid to overturn an unfavorable election result. It did not work, but his captors treated him decently, even insisting he join them for some rifle practice.
“It wasn’t so bad,” he said with a soft chuckle. “They were very polite once they found out I was 71. And before I left, they insisted on having their photo taken with me.”
In Chitral, life is quieter. In the northern corner of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa Province, it has escaped the Taliban firestorm thanks to its geographic and cultural isolation. The spiked peaks of the Hindu Kush are a formidable palisade, although an insurgent attack on the Afghan border last year jangled nerves. Unlike most of the surrounding region’s people, the Chitralis are not ethnic Pashtuns, and their passions lie with playing a rambunctious version of polo (imagine rugby on horseback), educating their children and cutting loose. During the recent gathering to install a hereditary tribal prince, things became typically raucous: tipsy young men danced wildly in celebration as they took gulps from a bottle of moonshine, watched quietly by police officers.
Mr. Langlands is in some respects the quintessential Englishman of old, a living relic of the Raj. He lives in a ramshackle little cottage in the town center, where he rises every morning at 5:40. Exactly 40 minutes later, a servant appears with breakfast: oatmeal, a poached egg and two cups of tea, always. Mr. Langlands flicks through the latest newspaper, which, given the valley’s erratic plane service, may be several days old.
Then an assistant, who answers his phone and juggles his e-mail, turns up to take him to work. Famous visitors watch from dust-smeared photographs on the wall: Diana, Princess of Wales, who visited Chitral in 1991; and Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the Islamist dictator, whom Mr. Langlands knew well. “Once,” he says in a stentorian voice, “General Zia kept Henry Kissinger waiting so he could see me.”
Behind his chirpy laugh lies a cool intelligence and a diplomatic reserve. It is an old-fashioned, low-key style at odds with the multimillion-dollar budgets and media-driven philanthropy of modern development aid. He pays himself a $270 monthly salary — paltry even by local standards — and travels on public buses. He knows Urdu but declines to use it: “I’ve always felt my job is to improve the level of English,” he said. Not much of his family remains: he was orphaned at 12, he never married, and his twin brother, who lives back in England, has visited Chitral just twice.
“I just take life as it comes,” he said when asked about his philosophy.
Chitralis consider him one of them. “The major is invaluable,” said Sultan Mehmood, a local development worker. “We cannot replace him.”
But replace him they must. A minor stroke a few years ago left his hands trembling; doctors worry about the effects of another freezing winter in Chitral. A current of worry courses through local conversations: when the major goes, will his proud school survive him?
The answer, they hope, is another English principal — but this time a female one. From September, the Langlands school will be run by Carey Schofield, a writer who has published books on French gangsters, Mick Jagger and, mostly recently, the Pakistani Army. Ms. Schofield, 58, admits to no teaching experience, but says Chitralis were insistent on another “Britisher.”
“They have so much respect for Major Langlands that I think they wanted to clone him,” she said by phone from London.
Urgent work awaits. As Mr. Langlands has slowed in recent years, problems have piled up: unpaid school fees, lagging teacher wages, a lack of computers, organization and money. Already, Ms. Schofield has raised $55,000 to improve the bumpy track that curls up a steep slope to the senior school: last year a school bus with 14 students on board tumbled over the side; miraculously, no one was badly hurt.
Mr. Langlands, meanwhile, will move to Lahore, where his former students have arranged a small apartment for him on the magnificent grounds of his old school, Aitchison College. He has also, quietly, chosen his spot in one of the city’s Christian cemeteries: near the gate, he says, so friends can visit.
But first, he says, there is more work to be done: a memoir to write, a 95th birthday to share with his brother and more fund-raising. His dream, now, is to build a proper dormitory in Chitral, creating an ever better academy.
“I refuse,” he announces firmly, a gimlet sparkle in his blue-gray eyes, “to sit back and do nothing.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 15, 2012
Because of an editing error, the Saturday Profile article, about Geoffrey D. Langlands, a former British colonial officer and an educator who has lived in Pakistan since the country’s birth 65 years ago and, at 94, is contemplating retirement, misstated Mr. Langlands’s relationship to the Langlands School and College, an institution in Chital, Pakistan, that has become synonymous with excellence. He ran the school and was a major force in its development; he was not its founder. A picture caption with the continuation of the article repeated the error. The article also misstated the given name of a local development worker who called Mr. Langlands “invaluable” and someone who could not be replaced. He is Sultan Mehmood, not Multan.
He has been kidnapped and taken tea with princesses: a British major's life teaching in the Hindu Kush
by Declan Walsh, Monday 10 August 2009
Much has occurred, and much has changed, since Geoffrey Langlands, a young maths teacher-turned-army commando, landed on the shores of British India on a troop carrier in 1944. Since then the intrepid Englishman has lived a life of algebra and adventure. He has scraped through several wars, been kidnapped in Waziristan, educated world-famous cricketers, and taken tea with princesses, several prime ministers and a ruthless dictator.
Some things, however, never change. Every morning the retired major, who turns 92 in a few months, rises at dawn in his cottage in Chitral, in the upper reaches of the Hindu Kush mountains in Pakistan's North West Frontier province. He puts on a blazer, tie and polished shoes. Then he sits down to breakfast served by his loyal servant, Sufi. It is always the same: porridge ("Quaker Oats, of course"), a poached egg (the poacher bought from Selfridges) and two cups of Lipton tea. He leafs through a newspaper, which has arrived via the valley's irregular plane service and is a few days old. Then it is out of the door, through the gate and up a winding hill to the school he founded and to which he has dedicated the last 20 years of his life.
The Langlands school and college (motto: "There is always room for improvement") is Chitral's finest school. It has 900 pupils aged between four and 18, more than a third of them girls, and a record of academic excellence. The best students have gone on to scholarships in Lahore, doctorates in Australia and exchange programmes in America. At between £3 and £6 a month, fees are low, even by local standards.
"Major Langlands is a living legend," says Motasim Billah Shah, the district coordination officer or top government official, in Chitral. "He has made an extraordinary contribution, a portrait of dedication. What he has been assigned by Allah almighty, he has done with all his energies."
Now, however, those energies are ebbing. Last year he had to be rushed by air to Peshawar after a minor stroke. He struggles to remember names, and every winter – Chitral is snow-bound for four months of the year – is more testing than the last. Longevity has brought a touch of loneliness: last year his loyal servant of 28 years, Muhammad Ali, died. "We used to argue about which one of us was older," Langlands says wistfully. "His one aim in life was to look after me. He was the perfect servant."
Finally, Langlands is contemplating retirement. But there is a problem: no replacement has been found, and disagreements abound. Meanwhile the school is losing money. For the people of Chitral this raises a troubling question: when the English major goes, will his fine school survive him?
The senior school is perched on a grassy plateau outside Chitral with a stunning view – vertiginous slopes and swaying fields of wheat on one side; the white-capped Terech Mir mountain, soaring to 7,700 metres, on the other. In the dimly lit principal's office, Langlands sinks into a large chair. He is a frail but authoritative figure, with cropped silver hair sweeping across a freckled forehead and keen blue eyes that gleam like lapis lazuli.
Chitral, with its isolated mountain culture, has largely escaped the turmoil that has engulfed the rest of the frontier province. A couple of weeks earlier, Langlands tells me, he got a call: the Taliban had kidnapped 80 secondary students from Razmak cadet college in North Waziristan, deep inside the lawless tribal belt. (All were later released.) Langlands had some advice to offer on two counts – he ran the college in the 1980s, and was also kidnapped.
"One of the tribal leaders had just lost an election," he recalls with a chuckle. "They thought that if I was taken, the president might reverse the result." The kidnappers weren't bad sorts: as they traipsed across the mountains towards a lonely cabin, they insisted on a souvenir photo. "They lined up with their Kalashnikovs; then they wanted one with me in it." Later they invited Langlands to join them for target practice, handing him a gun. "It didn't seem to occur to them I could turn on them, although I would have had to kill 16 of them," he says. After six days, a group of tribal elders sprung him free. The election result stood.
Days later Langlands was invited to lunch with General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's military ruler, in Peshawar. "He wanted to send me back to England," he says. "But I wanted to get back to Razmak as quickly as possible." Then again, going home has never been on his agenda.
Orphaned at the age of 12, Langlands was sent to India after taking part in the disastrous raid on Dieppe, when his commando unit captured a German heavy gun. In 1947 he found himself stranded on a train in no man's land, during the bloody partition of Pakistan and India, trying to prevent the Hindu troops under his command from being butchered. But in the end he preferred the Muslims, and plumped to stay in Pakistan to train the fledgling army. In 1954 he returned to his first love – mathematics – when the army chief, General Ayub Khan, arranged a job at Lahore's prestigious Aitchison College, where the British had educated the sons of India's tribal royalty. Ayub went on to become Pakistan's first military ruler, and Langlands stayed for 25 years, teaching upper-crust young Pakistanis destined to lead in business, politics and the army. And Imran Khan.
"Oh yes, he owes me quite a lot," he says, betraying a shy smile. "Everyone knew he was going to be an outstanding sportsman but I told him that if he wanted to be a leader, he would have to do his lessons." What does he think of Khan's reincarnation as a politician? (Khan has courted controversy by siding with pro-Taliban religious conservatives.) "The less I say the better," he says.
Langlands is well connected, to say the least. Down the years he has met President Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and numerous backroom power brokers – usually with a view to extracting money for his schools. (Three years ago he persuaded Musharraf to give 50m rupees/£385,000), which forms the bulk of an interest-bearing fund that is meant to keep the school afloat, but doesn't.) Their photos adorn the mantelpiece of his home, a run-down former bank manager's bungalow threatened by a creeping tide of dust-smeared books. One photo shows a youthful Princess Diana, who visited Chitral in the early 90s. "So fresh and simple," he says.
In return, Langlands has a fierce loyalty to Pakistan. In the 1965 war with India he raised a militia among the gardeners and cooks of Aitchison. It didn't last long – when an Indian plane zoomed overhead "they hid under the banyan trees". He never married, he says, because "whether I found an English or a Pakistani lady, their first question would be when would we go back to England. No. I decided my career was in Pakistan." But for all that, he never requested a Pakistani passport.
"Whatever my qualities are, they are my Britishness," he says. He is wary of modern development experts and addresses his staff in English rather than Urdu. In heated moments, such as disagreements with teachers, the old army officer shines through, with a barking voice and wagging finger. "He runs the school in quite an authoritative manner. You can see a bit of a dictator in him," says Siraj ul Mulk, a friend and school board member.
Yet there is no doubting his dedication. After 73 years of teaching Langlands pays himself £160 a month – not much, even in Pakistan. His twin brother, who lives in Blackpool, has visited just four times in six decades, most recently in 1992. Langlands cannot visit him until someone – most likely a former student – stumps up for the air fare. But his success is also his weakness. Everything in the school – from fund-raising to micro-management – revolves around the ageing major. The worry is that when he is gone, it will all fall apart. "A brilliant teacher but not a good manager," says Shah. "We have to develop a system where people come and go but the institution remains."
A popular notion in Chitral is to find a replacement "Britisher". They're not so plentiful these days, though. Langlands is bravely resisting retirement: "I shall remain as long as I am mentally and physically fit," he declares – but is quietly making preparations. His beloved Aitchison college has agreed to provide lodgings in the prep school boarding house. In the end, he predicts, the principal's job will fall into local hands – possibly a good thing – but he is still open to another "Britisher". Adventure-seeking retired principals, apply now.
Some help is already at hand. David Game, an educationalist based in Notting Hill, London, who runs two other schools in Pakistan, is considering investing in the Langlands school. First, though, he says he would like to know how it will be run, and by whom. "Even if we get another person," he says, "it's not going to be another Major Langlands, is it?"
Major Geoffrey Langlands, 94, leaves his post in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province after 60 years
By Neil Tweedie, Published: 13 Jun 2012
Geoffrey Langlands began teaching in the autumn of 1936. It was at a public school in Croydon and the abdication crisis was being played out in the newspapers. His salary: £5 a month. Seventy-six years later and Major Langlands has seen some improvement in pay. As principal of the college that carries his name, he now earns £40 a week. Fortunately, £40 goes a bit further in the Hindu Kush than it does in Croydon.
Langlands is an institution, a living relic of British India. When the officers of the Indian Army packed their bags and climbed aboard the troopships in 1947, leaving a fractured subcontinent, immersed in the blood of communal violence, the former commando stayed on, first as an adviser to the fledgling Pakistani Army, before resuming a career in education interrupted by the Second World War. Pakistan has been his home ever since, the country he loves, but not the country on his passport. That remains the United Kingdom.
Now, at last, this tutor to a good portion of the Pakistani elite, including the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, can look forward to putting his feet up. Those in Britain who fret about the raising of the retirement age should spare a thought for the Major. He has had to wait until the age of 94 to find someone to succeed him at Langlands School and College, the distinctly British institution he founded in the remote, mountainous principality of Chitral. The area, in the far north-west of Pakistan, borders Afghanistan. Candidates for the job (Langlands wanted a British principal to maintain the school’s ethos) have melted away, one after the other, fearing kidnap and murder. Never one to desert his post, the Major – who never married, and was himself kidnapped by tribesmen in 1988 – has hung on, waiting for the right man.
“They just couldn’t dream of coming to Pakistan,” he said of previous applicants. “One of them wrote in his final letter that he thought Pakistan was supposed to be getting better but found out it was getting worse. But that is what has kept me here: the idea of getting my little bit better and better.”
Eventually, though, Langlands found the right man. A woman.
Carey Schofield is an unlikely successor. A journalist, specialising in military and international affairs, she has never taught for a living, but so impressed was she by the college that she decided to take it on.
“I met Major Langlands a couple of years ago, when I was helping to organise a cricket match in aid of the school,” she says. “I was struck by his energy and verve. I thought he would turn up in the afternoon as the guest of honour, but instead he was there before nine in the morning, sorting out chairs and tents and caterers. “I was asked to help find a replacement for the Major. He wanted a young British Army officer to take on the job. But somehow the idea emerged that perhaps a woman could do it just as well as a man.
“Chitral is a magical place. I can’t imagine anyone who has been there not wanting to stay. The climate is lovely, the mountains very beautiful and the people relaxed and friendly. They are very proud of being Chitrali, of their history as a princely state, and of their language.”
There are some 1,000 boys and girls at the college, which nestles in the foothills of the Kush, the great western arm of the Himalayas. Sixty-five years after the end of the Raj, Pakistani parents still choose to educate their children, in English, in the British style – though a style long abandoned in Britain itself. Good manners and a respect for one’s teachers are taken for granted at Langlands.
“I have been a governor at a number of state primary schools in London,” says Miss Schofield, “and the overwhelming issue, all the time, was discipline. So the junior schoolchildren in Chitral were a revelation to me. They are eager to learn, enjoy coming to school and think themselves lucky to be at Langlands.”
The Major will hand over to Miss Schofield in September and retire to Aitchison College – Pakistan’s Eton – in Lahore. So will end his daily routine, beginning with a breakfast of poached eggs and Quaker Oats washed down by Lipton’s tea. Never less than smartly turned out, he then takes the short walk to the school and morning assembly.
Why was it important to recruit a Briton? “Everyone here has said, 'If you can get an English principal, get one.’ What people remember from British rule is that it went, on the whole, smoothly – that, ever since Partition, everything has gone wrong. People very often say to me, 'Oh the British should come back.’ They wouldn’t really want that, though.” Born in Hull in 1917, the Major lost his father to the influenza epidemic of 1918. His mother, left with three children to look after, died of cancer when he was 10. The headmaster of King’s College Taunton, a family friend, offered him a free place at the school.
“I’ve always taken life as it comes,” he says, “that these things happen and you just make the most of it. I’ve always been happy, even when things were going wrong.” Langlands began working life as a mathematics teacher at a public school before joining up on the outbreak of war. He was subsequently posted to 4 Commando, taking part in the disastrous amphibious raid on Dieppe in 1942. The following year he was selected for officer training and posted to the Indian army.
“When independence came, they asked British officers to volunteer to stay on for one year to train up the new army. I had every intention of returning home but volunteered to stay behind for a while.”
One year with the Pakistani army turned to seven. It was the commander-in-chief of the army who suggested to Langlands that he should stay on and put his educational expertise to good use in civilian life. He began teaching at Aitchison in 1954, moving to a school in North-West Frontier Province in 1979. The dramatic high came in 1988 when he was kidnapped by tribesmen in search of ransom. “They took me to their village. I had to walk six and a half hours in the mountains, in mid-winter. I walked into the hut and found there were three prisoners there already. They had been there for four and a half months. I was the VIP. The military could not assault the village because we would have been killed, so they got a party of elders to approach the kidnappers. They said, 'Look, you can’t kidnap the principal.’ So they agreed to release me on condition that nothing was done against them.” Chitral has remained relatively free of Taliban infiltration but there have been sporadic attacks and some kidnappings.
“The threat is very slight at the moment, because the ordinary Chitrali do not allow these strange people to come in,” says the Major.Miss Schofield, 58, is equally confident about her safety. “Invariably, when English people hear that someone is going to live in Pakistan, they talk about the security situation. This really does not seem to me to be an issue. Chitral has not had the sort of violence seen elsewhere in the frontier.”
She looks forward with excitement to her new task.
“The teachers are utterly devoted to the school and determined that it shall survive. It offers children from Chitral the possibility of a first-class education and the chance to get into the best universities in Pakistan and abroad. Taking over from Major Langlands is, of course, daunting. He is irreplaceable. He is a living legend in Pakistan.” Does the living legend miss Britain? “No. Chitral feels like home. I wouldn’t have the money to retire back to the UK and I have so many friends here. Britain is very different. It’s everyone for himself. The idea of service is still strong in Pakistan.” And the cricket test? Who does he support?
“Pakistan, of course. The day that Pakistan won the international in Australia, when they beat England in the final, my staff came to me and said, 'Oh, sorry, your team lost.’ I said they didn’t have to be sorry. How could I be sad when the captain of the Pakistani team was my student? The final happened as I wanted: England and Pakistan, and Pakistan won. Perfect.”