It’s not often that there’s a meeting with one’s old English master after more years than one cares to remember. I use the word ‘old’ meaning ‘former teacher’ when I was at school. Naturally, we are both older now but there’s less than ten years’ difference between Brian and me.
A disciple, at Downing College Cambridge, of one of the most formidable twentieth century critics, F. R. Leavis, Brian has had a distinguished teaching career starting with London’s Dulwich College (where he had me as one of his pupils) and ending with Bristol’s Clifton College. Brian Worthington remains the chair of the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society who benefit greatly from his fine prose style in their monthly magazine.
(Brian and Carlotta)
It would be quite correct to say that Brian has helped me perceive what is truly worth reading and what isn’t. My critical judgement, however, differs from his in a few instances. For example, at school, when gaining a form prize I opted for the complete poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley who isn’t exactly Brian’s cup of tea. I remember Brian devastating, for example, Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’, one of the poet’s less successful lyrics, it must be admitted.
At King’s I became friends with E. M. Forster whose ‘Passage to India’ remains one of those few novels I have to re-read at regular intervals. Again, as a representative of the Bloomsbury school, anathema to Leavisites, this might have been a questionable activity.
(Forster in his rooms at Cambridge)
On most matters however, I don’t differ from Brian as to what constitutes profitable reading. Dickens has been re-established as an author that far transcends that caricatured word ‘Dickensian’. ‘Little Dorrit’, for example (which was one of my A-level texts) contains views on nouveau-riche British travellers abroad that still trenchantly describe the situation today. D. H. Lawrence has also been my companion both in reading and in travelling. My visit to Tarquinia, for example, was largely inspired by the author’s posthumous ‘Sketches of Etruscan places.’
I sometimes have had lapses in good taste when, for instance, I overpraised Restoration heroic drama which is just a poor mirror of the great French seventeenth century dramatic tradition and I do enjoy reading some of Edith Sitwell’s poems and listening to them too – as in Walton’s ‘Façade’. Which brings me to music. For an English master to lend his Bernstein recording of Mahler’s Sixth (it was vinyl then) to a messy schoolboy was some risk but clearly Brian trusted me and the symphony was listened to (for the first time) and the two discs returned in unscratched condition.
Mahler unites Brian, my wife and me in a special way. For it was at a London Royal Festival Hall concert where Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Tenth was heard that I had my first date with Alexandra. Brian complemented me on choosing such a beautiful girl for that date the following morning during my English lesson. To me she ever remains beautiful, of course.
Some years later I wrote this poem on that premonitory event:
It was the tenth (we started at the end
and then worked our way to the beginning):
searing chords of tremendous sound ascend
darkly overlaid like the death-bird’s wing.
Suddenly a trumpet screams out on high,
siren-like, cutting our souls to the bone
of thought, collapsing in a yearning sigh
as we shiver before the feared unknown.
We found refuge in flowering of nature,
the last slow movement of the third,
God-given harmonies that reassure
like the ethereal song of heaven’s bird.
This music is a scene-change to our lives:
beyond our loves transcendent sound survives.
Brian was also the first teacher to take us out to visit the then Dulwich College Picture Gallery, now simply the Dulwich Gallery, and help us appreciate the value of good and great art.
Again, some years later I wrote this about the visit to the Gallery – a jewel-like collection in the world’s first purpose-built gallery. I’ve inserted a few of the pictures alluded to in my poem.
WEST ENTRANCE: DULWICH PARK
Three iron gates conclude the day
and lawns are left alone
to twilight ducks and passing birds
and thoughts that lie unknown.
Green sashes kiss sear autumn light
and mirror naked years
while fingered village signposts weep
new ice age fountain tears.
Upon the sacral mountain slope
the God sucks on her teats;
Amalthea rises, hornèd proud,
as bees drone round their sweets.
Red house upon dusk’s park unfolds
its emptied living room
with frozen sounds of half-heard pasts
and failing roses’ bloom.
In furze-brown taverns clay-pipe smoke
embraces heaving breasts
as sanguine, wide-hipped country girls
consider sly requests.
The evening road winds past wild fronds,
declining columns and stone tombs
while draperies unfurl their toes
against the night’s perfumes.
And could I rise like waxing moons
upon this painted scene;
reflect in crystals of the mind
on what has never been?
The pictures inserted are, of course, by that supreme French Classicist, Nicolas Poussin.of whose works the gallery possesses a dozen examples).
It was a particular pleasure, indeed a privilege, to have Brian and another of his Dulwich pupils with his wife for lunch a week ago. In a sense it was like an unofficial Old Alleynian lunch (old Alleynians are what former pupils at the school founded by Shakespearian actor Edward Alleyn in 1616 are called).
(Dulwich College London SE 21)
Which brings me to Shakespeare himself. No bard of Avon will do for Brian. There were real hints from this pointedly charming and erudite teacher that Shakespeare hailed from the part of the world I am now residing in. In that sense my piece on the man himself at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/heres-to-will/ may have greater resonance than I first imagined.
How wonderful it is that I met my English master again in the romantic wilds of the Apennines. Surely I fulfilled the tenet that Brian had of me at school, that I was a hopeless Italianate aesthete.
(In the last photograph Brian is holding a print featuring the Surrey railway network in 1856. Included in the print is a drawing of the old college at Dulwich. Surprisingly, I found the print at Lucca’s antiques market).
But then I also met another of my unforgettable English masters in the exotic orientality of Saigon not that long ago….
(Bradley Winterton – Lincoln College Oxford – at Mũi Né, Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan, Vietnam earlier this year. Far East journalist, reviewer and author of ‘The Mystery Religions of Gladovia’)
PS Incidentally there’s a good Shakespeare festival at nearby Capannori. See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/shakespeare-festival-at-capannori/ for more on that.
PPS Dulwich gallery now has three more Poussins. See http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2016/may/poussin-the-sacraments/