Obituary: Eric Austen
Saturday 17 July 1999
It takes another sort of commitment to name your home Dove Cottage, even - perhaps especially - if you live on Wordsworth Walk. Austen's two-up, two-down house in Hampstead Garden Suburb was steadily reduced in habitable size as books and records, then CDs and videos, lined the walls. Visitors frequently gravitated to the kitchen or the surprisingly rural garden, steep, with a treasure-shed and bench of eccentric design. Though shelves, filing cabinets and a recent "lap-top" proclaimed the informed range of his literary sympathies, a stubbornly artisanal past kept faith with him.
Eric Austen was brought up in the Norfolk village of Hethersett. His parents were both 22 when he was born. His father worked as a farm labourer, mother did cleaning. Grandma and Grandpa Symonds lived in a converted railway carriage, sold off in some post-Great-War bonanza. Duck-plucking, pig-scraping and worship of a Methodist God offered little relief from respectable but undisguisable poverty in the Land Fit for Heroes promised by Lloyd George. The father did one year on the Western Front, returning only to find that a Land Army girl had usurped his job, and agricultural wages were about to be cut.
When Eric was only one, his father helped to organise a strike, and was later victimised by local employers. But the boy was encouraged by his grandmother, and by a teacher at the Hethersett British School, from which he won a scholarship to the City of Norwich Grammar School.
In All That I Was, the childhood memoir which Austen published in 1996, menfolk are outvoted or outsung by women. The teachers with their Lawrentian names - Gerty Beebie, Rosie Ellis, and Jessie Bachelor - eclipse the male family. An overheard incident in which the headmistress tried to cane a senior boy plays a more significant role in the book than its author ever fully appreciated. For this was a beaten generation, the surviving men traumatised by the war, defeated in the General Strike, and confused by the upsurge of feminist demands.
In his early adult life, Eric Austen felt some little domestic violence at woman's hand, not to mention other betrayals. His quite exceptional powers of forgiveness may have been the paradoxical bonus of his giving up Christianity. But only his marriage in 1968 to the Indian-born Kate Taylor brought the emotional balance and happiness which the memoir suggests had been present among Norfolk grandmothers, his mother, and poetry-loving teachers.
A pacifist during the Second World War, Austen worked in the forestry service. He was by now an awkward amalgam of well-spoken grammar-school product and do-it-yourself educationalist. First a primary-school teacher, in the late 1950s he sat on the committee for an Annual Exhibition of Children's Art organised with the Sunday Pictorial. His youngest pupils adored his informality - he pinned an early photograph of himself on the classroom wall, "Sir at Seven".
He was a registered student at London University's Institute of Education between 1963 and 1972, while from 1964 to 1972 he also taught at Southlands College, before moving to Goldsmiths' as a lecturer (later Senior Lecturer), specialising in art education. At Goldsmiths' he acquired the nickname "Skipper", not from any talent for leadership but from his practice of ransacking roadside skips for transformable junk.
Never short of words, he styled himself the Artful Bodger, and yet also boasted of being a reader not a writer. He threw himself into a variety of good causes - Amnesty, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, holistic medicine - in a manner which deployed to best advantage that sinewy passivity which was both the tragedy and strength of his early life.
He violently hated warfare and violence of any kind. It is fitting that his best-known work for CND was anonymous and collaborative: several of his prototypes for the CND badge - ceramic to survive the nuclear holocaust which we would not survive - are preserved in the British Museum. Other small pieces he designed were sold through Liberty.
His activities were not always so small-scale nor so successful. In May 1981, he exhibited 40 hand-made "Life Books" (huge hand-written commonplace books) at the Goldsmiths' College Gallery. The product of 35 years' collecting, reading and designing, these brought together more than 2,000 quotations from world literature and philosophy.
The whole enterprise had begun in 1960, when Austen was recovering from a serious illness. In calling the result "Survival Kit", he was signalling that his campaign of reading was not unconnected with the CND and E.P. Thompson's book Protest and Survive (1980). Richard Hoggart, then Warden of Goldsmiths', got the point, writing in his introduction to the display, "It recalls the end of The Waste Land: `These fragments I have shored against my ruins'." The exhibition was revived in Friends' House, London, in 1990 with Hoggart's backing.
To the clutter of "Life Books" in Dove Cottage, Austen added a condensed/sculptural version (which he called "The White Box"), only turning to public media right at the end of his life when he published The Three Hundred (1998), an annotated commonplace book.
When his Methodist God fell victim to his 1960s crisis in health, Austen devised a pantheon of spiritual advisers (mainly dead poets) and an undogmatic non-creed. Grandma Symonds lived to be 100, before expiring in an old folks' home. "How I still love you though you are almost nowhere save in this head that you blessed and smiled on," Austen wrote in his memoir. His own passing came earlier in life and more swiftly. Leukaemia was diagnosed a month before he died, in the Royal Free Hospital, with his wife at his side.
W. J. Mc Cormack
Eric Austen, teacher and designer: born East Tuddenham, Norfolk 3 November 1922; married 1968 Kate Taylor; died London 1 July 1999.
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