An old workhorse

Nov 19th, 2008 | By | Category: Personal Columns

There were fifty in the class at the beginning of the Michaelmas Term; by midway through the Lent Term, one Wednesday morning there were only eight of us dotted around the large lecture room. Maybe he didn’t like undergraduates; it seemed that some undergraduates didn’t like him.

The lectures seemed like a chore to him, something that must be got through.  He would amble up to the lectern at the appointed hour, his notes crumpled and yellowing.  “That’s a fish and chip wrapper”, muttered one student on a morning when ‘crumpled’ would not have been an adequate description for the mass of paper set down on the lectern.

Occasionally, though, glimpses of enthusiasm would show through.  He had an intense dislike for Irish history being told like a fireside chat.  “An interview with a someone who says things like, ‘The man wouldn’t keep quiet, so I plugged him’, might be interesting, but it’s not serious history”.  This seemed like the comment of a spoilsport, memoirs were always fun to read, but the real question was, of course, about the processes and circumstances that led to the man being ‘plugged’.  (I used to wonder afterwards whether anyone ever talked in such terms or whether it was a piece of stage Irish, like the supposed inclination of people on this island to say, ‘Begorrah’, something I have not heard once in twenty-five years living here).

Occasionally, his personal experiences would creep into his otherwise dry delivery of lectures.  He had been a British army officer during the Second World War and when he talked about Germany in 1945, it was through the eyes of someone who had been there. Such moments were rare, though, history was not reminiscence.

It always seemed sad that the lectures were not better attended; no matter how dry he could be, he knew more than any undergraduate.  One of his books had been on the reading list for the history A level, so perhaps he was not taken seriously by students who felt such stuff to be ‘lightweight’.  He cannot have failed to notice how few of us there were, on the morning there were just eight of us it felt acutely embarrassing just to be sitting in the room, but he seemed unperturbed.

Only today did the sense of indignity he must have felt actually strike home.  Searching Abebooks, the academic equivalent of Amazon, a string of titles by him appeared. A man who had written major studies of 1930s Europe cannot have felt anything other than hurt at having to devote an hour on a Wednesday to a group of undergraduates where 80% do not even turn up.

A collection of essays in his memory was published in the mid-90s; he cannot have been a great age when he died.  The review of the collection notes that the man honoured never rose beyond the rank of senior lecturer, a position regarded as a graveyard for old workhorses, though it was not so in the case of this man.  The review also notes that he came from an Anglo-Irish background and from the more personally eccentric wing of that community.  The Anglo-Irish tend to be eccentric by nature; to be on their more eccentric wing would make one memorable indeed, and would be a perfectly reasonable explanation of the fish and chip wrapper.

In a culture where the events of Big Brother and Strictly Come Dancing are counted as news, it more and more seems that the world’s most interesting people are dead.

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  1. Yes, a bit depressing when SCD makes the Times – not even a particularly short article either although it makes other points.

  2. Sad to discover his talents so late I guess. We’ve started taking roll calls or rather you have to sign on to lectures these days. Miss more than 3 and you’re out which is a good thing.

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