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14 March 2014

Jonathan Boardman


IT WAS Charles Winder, head of the Bolton School Boys' Division's English department, who took me aside more than 30 years ago after a classroom reading of Macbeth to enquire whether I would prefer to try for English at Oxbridge rather than the Classics, which I had indicated as my intended field.

I replied that I stood more chance in the less heavily subscribed school of literae humaniores than I guessed I would with English. After a snuffling "Ahem," which, I knew from his A-level literature classes, prefaced all his utterances, he agreed.

Flattered and tempted as I was, I trusted his judgement; this was the man who held his handwritten notes in folders made from offcuts of wallpaper, who had the balls to teach Jane Austen to 17-year-old boys, and who had once sardonically replied to an enquiry after the whereabouts of a student teacher, and whether she was dead: "Well, as far as you're concerned she might as well be."

He was one of my then heroes. There were others: George Grasby, already retired, who had planted in me his own love of Latin, and whose pre-war teaching career had started at Bradford Grammar; Christopher Eames, history master, who had taught an O-level syllabus 1870-1970, and whose knowledge of Mao's China made him runner-up in a particularly high-scoring Mastermind final; Ralph Britten, a passionate producer of the theatrical pieces in which I delighted, treading the same boards vacated a generation earlier by that rising star of the RSC, Ian McKellen; and Norman Harper, head of music, who propelled our choir and orchestra into a brutal, exhilarating encounter with Bach's St John Passion in the face of tut-tutting from more experienced and less hard-working colleagues.

Why all this nostalgia for the personalities of my secondary education? I have just finished reading John William's 1963 novel Stoner, and considering its tribute to teaching and the teacher, have had cause to reflect on debts that I owe.

The northern grammar school (albeit going "independent" at the time) was a remarkably robust institution, and it retained or attracted teachers of incredible charisma and skill. More than can be said, it seems, for the dioceses of today's northern province.

I ADMIT to shock that, in this age of political correctness on so many fronts, it still appears to be entirely acceptable among those who imagine that they practise "received pronunciation" to comment on those of us who retain traces of regional accents - in my case, clearly a northern one.

Hardly a speech of appreciation for whatever it is I am being thanked for fails to mention that I deliver whatever it is I deliver with my "usual northern phlegm" or "charming northern brogue".

It is generally recognised that it is rude to comment on someone's hairstyle, dress-sense, or weight, but it seems that accents are fair game. The most outrageous comment I have ever faced was when a snooty English Benedictine expressed regret at not being able to attend the Oxford University Latin Sermon I was to deliver, "since I would have so liked to hear Latin spoken with a northern accent". What I like to think of as good manners kept me from replying "As opposed, I suppose, to 'with a plum in t'gob'."

Even one of the colleagues I most admire recently exhibited surprise when, for a short after-dinner entertainment during diocesan synod, I adopted RP to deliver my lines, as if to suggest that he simply could not understand why I chose not to employ it habitually.

Very rude people have sometimes told me that my accent is ugly - and while I would allow it to lack something of euphony, it has been a boon in approaching the open vowel sounds of the Italian language which even RP purists generally argue to be a beautiful tongue.

Bishops, too, entertain the trope of commenting on accents, one suggesting that I would certainly have more success in being shortlisted for jobs if I restricted myself to "t'north"; and another publicly explaining that he knew we had got off to a bad start when he had mistaken my place of origin as Yorkshire.

Northerners, unite! Forget our old divisions; there is a whole south out there with which to engage. Or maybe I should just get over it.

AS MY reading of fiction has recently focused on teachers, so has my study. Sir Richard Southern's magisterial Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe wasa Christmas gift from a former churchwarden.

In his account of the medieval university, the masters of Laon, Chartres, Paris, and Bologna walk the stage as the rocket scientists of their age; and to have been taught by one or a series of them is shown to have been a necessity for advancement in virtually every field of public business.

A northerner, one Master Lawrence, went to Paris to sit at the feet of Hugh of St Victor on the recommendation of a monk of Durham in the early years of the 12th century. He was considered a sufficiently good student to be asked by the master to transcribe his lectures, but it seems that a lack of family contacts ultimately required him to accept "a precarious livelihood as a messenger in the lawsuits of northern monasteries."

Disappointed thus to be wasting his education, he opted for monastic vows at St Albans Abbey (a famously litigious house), and acted so successfully in suits that he was eventually elected Abbot. I wonder how he pronounced Latin.

NORMAN HARPER, one of my teachers as noted above, is a southerner, but married to a northerner. I once heard him tell an anecdote about his mother. While driving her to visit his then home in Bolton (he is now organist at Southwark RC Cathedral), they passed the gigantic power station visible from the M1 near Nottingham.

She asked what the huge cylindrical structures were, and he informed her that they were cooling towers. "But, my dear, aren't they already cool enough up here?"

Now what makes me think she was an employer of RP?

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.


Sat 28 May @ 15:56
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