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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.