Written with conviction, insight and flair, Alexander Ross’ The Major promises to be a compelling blend of biography and memoir that spans the 20th century, with a dazzling narrative sweep reaching from an impoverished childhood in northern England to a long career as a pioneering schoolteacher in a lawless mountainous region of Pakistan.
This first in-depth study of the singular and renowned educationalist Geoffrey Langlands by an American former pupil of this school will shed new light on subjects from the last days of the Raj to the rise of radical Islam, while revealing the full details of an extraordinary life that spanned 101 years.
Ross’ forthcoming work is sure to appeal to readers who enjoyed the Oprah Winfrey recommended Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Random House, 2012) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton, 2007), while also tapping into the growing market for books on inspiring educators, as demonstrated by the success of Kate Clanchy’s Orwell Prize-winning Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (Picador, 2019).
It is not every teacher whose death sends an entire country into mourning. But then, Major Geoffrey Langlands was no ordinary teacher and his was no ordinary life.
With determination and insight, Alexander Ross has pieced together a story that spans from being orphaned in northern England during the Great Depression to his death in Pakistan – a long life in which he changed the lives of so many others for the better.
Ross reveals how the remote patch of Pakistan that Langlands made his home became a launchpad for wildly diverse career paths; while the author established himself as a Hollywood screenwriter and agent, some of his classmates grew up to join the Taliban.
Much has changed since Geoffrey Langlands, a young maths teacher-turned-army commando in WW2. On the 4 March 1941, the Dutch ship LSI HMS Queen Emma took the elite No. 4 Commando, which Langlands was part of, on a raid of the Lofoten Islands in Norway, during which they captured an enigma cipher machine which helped Alan Turing break the German Enigma code and change the tide of the war. After several other covert missions Langlands fought in the disastrous 1942 Raid on Dieppe, a precursor to the D-Day landings. In 1944, he was selected for officer training and posted to the Indian army. On joining the Royal Garhwal Rifles his commanding officer told him: “Either you will be killed violently by Japanese, or by some disease.” He never left. It was the start of his love affair with the sub-continent.
The Major charts a man’s lifelong struggle to change and improve others’ lives – and it would turn out that neither nationality nor faith were the prisms through which he saw change, but education.
The tale of how this British orphan came to be Pakistan’s best-loved teacher could be straight out of a story book. He survived the bloodshed of the Partition, in which thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fled across the borders between India and the new state of Pakistan. What followed saw him survive three wars, a kidnapping in Waziristan and the post 9/11 Taliban threat.
Unexpectedly, the narrative is interspersed with a particular brand of Voltairean humour derived from the Major’s refusal to take the many inexplicable occurrences in his life too seriously. For instance, No. 4 Commando was dubbed “The Troon BEF” because they had so many cancelled operations. ’Troon BEF,’ ‘BEF’ meaning, “back every fortnight”. But that was before they captured the Enigma machine and became one of the only two units to succeed in the Dieppe Raid. In a “Dad’s Army” grade occurrence, during a stand-off with India he formed a militia of gardeners and cooks at Aitchison College, but they all scarpered when the first Indian fighter plane buzzed them. When the Major was kidnapped by the Taliban it took a while for them to realise who he was, as well as his age, whereupon they released him with great deference, but not before taking a number of selfies with him.
He also met princesses and taught future prime ministers, all while maintaining a healthy respect for well-shined shoes, porridge oats and the English morning newspaper. He was, the New York Times said in 2012, “the quintessential Englishman of old, a living relic of the Raj”. But “the Major”, as he was affectionately known, was more than a vestige of a bygone age.
Most importantly, by the time of his death aged 101, his devotion to education transformed the lives of thousands of children growing up in some of Pakistan’s poorest, most remote and lawless regions. He was the first to provide an education to young girls in the Chitral tribal region by the Afghan border. Countless armies had failed to conquer this lawless territory since Alexander the Great in 327 BC, but the Major succeeded with some old textbooks.
Thousands of mourners flocked to Langlands’ funeral on 2nd January 2019, with many of the country’s leading figures paying tribute to “Pakistan’s Teacher”. Among them Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, who said he was “saddened to learn of the passing of my teacher... He stood out… He had this mixture of being firm yet compassionate.”
Many waited hours to see the Major’s cortege pass with a police honour guard. As an MBE, his coffin was draped with the British flag. He was buried in the Christian cemetery in Lahore – near the gate as per his instructions, so that his friends would not have far to walk to visit him.
Much of Ross’s research is already complete – he has obtained numerous stories of Langlands’ life from former pupils and intends to conduct many more interviews. It is hoped that illustrious former pupils such as Imran Khan will give their perspective on the man who helped set them on the path to success.
Ross will also describe his travels as he footsteps key locations in the Major’s life – from Hull to Chitral – as he charts his quest to piece together his mentor’s story.
Reminiscent of George Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, The Major’s biography explores the effects the process had on the author, how investigating the man who loomed so large in his schooldays led Ross to reconnect with a childhood he had filed away under the heading of “best forgotten”. Examining Langlands’ life prompts a process of sceptical self-examination in Ross, too – and in uncovering truths about Langlands, he discovers truths about himself. Like a psychotherapy process it revealed commonalities with The Major’s life experiences, such the effects on both men of growing up without a father. The journey of discovering the Major’s life led to illuminating revelations about the author’s life, which will also resonate with many readers.
As well as a revelatory biography, Ross’s book is a poignant, tender account of the challenges faced by boys who grow up fatherless and reveals how impressively they can be overcome.
(c) Dr. Alexander Ross, 2021