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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.