17 October 2007

Spirit behind a formidable exterior: Stephen Medcalf

Spirit behind a formidable exterior: Stephen Medcalf

Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig writes:
STEPHEN MEDCALF died on 17 September, aged 70. Those who were fortunate to discover, behind an almost formidable exterior, his richness of mind and spirit will never forget him.

As one of Iris Murdoch’s most brilliant pupils at Oxford — another was his lifelong friend A. D. Nuttall, whom he outlived by only six months — Medcalf might have spent his scholarly life in those cloisters.

His path was set, however, among the first generation of people who were forging new interdisciplinary studies at Sussex University. That place gave him the latitude to teach English literature from its first beginnings to the writers of our time, among whom he found a friend in William Golding.

Who would not have been fascinated to sit at his feet in a course studying English literature in parallel with astronomy? He edited, and contributed to, a book about the late Middle Ages. He edited, or was entirely at home with, authors as wide-ranging as Chesterton, Dickens, Tolkien, Wodehouse, Chaucer, Lancelot Andrewes, and, above all, T. S. Eliot. He had great swaths of their works by heart.

His magnum opus on the religious background of Eliot was, perhaps inevitably, never finished. Insights from it, and from the whole range of his encyclopaedic knowledge, adorned his articles. He spoke at many conferences, finding a congenial setting in his later years at Harlaxton. Adept in Hebrew and Greek, he was at his ease teaching the classics.

A solitary, he had several godchildren; and one lady, whom he found as a baby of a few hours on a bitter February evening in a phone box, owes him her life. The shining sword of his intellect was sheathed in a gentle compassion. There are stories of his rescuing trapped sheep from ditches, and birds from churches. He picked up worms marooned on tarmac or paving stones, and returned them to the nearest soil.


He travelled much, but also went into hiding three times a year, making a retreat, perhaps with a friend or two, a special book under his arm.

The happiest day of his life, he told friends, was a visit on 26 January 2006 with the Kipling Society to Burwash Church, near Batemans (Kipling’s house), where Rowan Williams officiated. Addressing the question whether Kipling was a believing Christian, the Archbishop quoted an article by Stephen on “Horace’s Kipling” (The Renaissance Quarterly, 1995) in which he wrote of the leeway needed by a creative thinker in relation to theological exactitude. They conversed, and afterwards corresponded.

Gabriel Josipovici, long his colleague in the English department of the University of Sussex, plans to gather together all his publications into one volume. He left a great deal unfinished, and died when his mental powers were at their height.

He knew, however, that he owed his latter days to the skill of a surgeon. Once, we were driving past a little village church under the Downs, and he asked if we might stop. He started by showing me favourite treasures, and then knelt in prayer to give thanks for having just survived a triple heart-bypass.

There was to be another fruitful decade of his enriching company. Almost a hermit in his neglect of himself, though on occasion he enjoyed the good things of life, his eye was always on the far horizon. His chosen church was packed for his funeral. A memorial service is planned at his university.

The Christmas carol service he organised there every year was a great event: wonderful singing of the choicest music, studded by readings familiar or unknown to most of us, and, at the end, Stephen, with a speaking voice he could use as Rostropovich played the cello, to illumine and make clear the darkest passages.

If ever a person followed St Paul’s counsel: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely . . . think on these things,” it was Stephen Medcalf. He was enthralled by the glories of our literature, and on fire with his faith.

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