31 December 2007

On the passing of a year and an era

I wrote some time ago about the death of Tony Nuttall. Now I've heard, a little late, about the passing of his more gloriously disorganised friend, Stephen Medcalf.

I knew him, Horatio... But there's not the point. The point is made well by Gabriel Josipovici (my personal tutor, although he won't remember that) in the obituary;

He would not have lasted long in the present academic climate, which is the poorer for turning its back on people like Medcalf ... who felt that what they were there for was to teach, to impart to their students the values they themselves had learned from their teachers and from the authors they admired.

Going through the obituaries, the word which sticks in my mind is "inspirational". He was probably deemed "research inactive" for the Research Assessment Exercises before he retired. The Quality Assurance Agency would have thrown up their hands in horror at him (more mundanely, it is claimed that the university cleaners refused to enter his office...) Some students would have not had a clue what to make of him.

But read this (which he was apparently encouraged to write by a former student, a certain Ian McEwan) for an insight into the mind of a humanist (not in the religious sense; Stephen was a devout Anglican). There are depths of significance and resonance here which are not merely affectations for publication; they were simply the waters in which Stephen swam, and they have a natural richness which few of us can share, for all our striving.

Alongside all the conventional wishes for health, happiness, prosperity, etc., I can't just wish Stephen's sensibilities to you; they represented years of committed and serious scholarly enjoyment, but it's never too late to start. So I had better get on with it!


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