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Friday, 22 August 2008

The Hemlock could have come sooner

Even at the time I realised my lecturers were a rum lot, but I didn’t realise that one of them was descended from William the Conqueror
Other than being eccentric, Neville Masterman appeared unremarkable. Dressed in shabby tweed, occasionally odd shoes, and usually wearing bicycle clips, no one would have guessed that he was descended from the hero of Senlac Hill, or indeed that his father was CFG Masterman, a Liberal Minister in Lloyd George’s government.

We were taught some history by a Doctor Breuning, no descendent of the Conqueror but a plump and earnest lady, daughter of a Weimar politician: Heinrich Breuning, a Chancellor Hitler made short work of.

Equally rum was Doctor Price who sought to teach us logic at 8.30 am every Friday morning. I grew to loath syllogisms – especially at that hour – but learnt a more valuable lesson. It was important to avoid eye contact with him – at any price avoid eye contact. We studied floor patterns, ceilings, stared down at our notes, the neck immediately before us; we avoided his roving gaze as though he were some kind of psychic vampire, which in sense he was. Once locked in his sights there was no escape – an entire 45 minute lecture was addressed to you, and to you alone.

DZ Phillips taught us Aristotle and Plato and created in me an abiding dislike of Socrates. The hemlock couldn’t come soon enough.

I did however feel sorry for Colwyn Williams, a Marxist forced to teach the Idealist philosophy and Bishop Berkeley to ignorant first years. He paced the dais like a chain smoking tiger, and you could hear the sound of gritted teeth some distance away.

Then there were my two favourite lecturers:

Peter Stead loved words. In one lecture he dismissed Victorian architecture as a ‘junk-heap of discarded styles’. In another he referred to that same architecture as a ‘rich and diverse pattern of experimentation.’ He was also a kind man who persuaded me that it wasn’t Tudor history I wanted to pursue in my MA but ‘Anthony Trollope and English Landed Society’. Anthony who? I muttered, but there a love affair began – with Trollope not Stead – though I’ll always be grateful for his patience with my punctuation and the occasional infelicitous phrase. Peter Stead was also a member of the government panel that chose Liverpool as the European Capital of Culture 2008 – though I doubt he had me in mind.

Finally there was Doctor Sidney Anglo.
Ah, well; we all age.

He was descended from no one in particular, though he harbored the belief that it might have been Shakespeare. A print of Shakespeare hung on the wall directly behind him, and he sat at angle until both profiles aligned. It was difficult to tell whether he was serious. He was the funniest and most stimulating man I’d ever come across. Brilliant, mercurial, Dr. Anglo had the happy knack of being able to holding his group entranced through hour long tutorials. It may have been magic.

On one occasion he gave a lecture on Renaissance Demonology but delayed his entrance. His eventual arrival was preceded by a low and sinister chant, as he and two acolytes appeared, incanting a four hundred year old summoning spell.
In his book on Machiavelli he writes of the Emperor Maximilian, whose schemes were, as ever, shrouded in the impenetrable secrecy peculiar to those who haven’t the faintest idea what they’re doing. It’s one of my favourite lines probably because it just about sums me up.

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