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Observations: Literary lessons from N F Simpson - an absurdly good playwright


Tomorrow, London's Royal Court Theatre will hold a celebration of the life and work of Britain's greatest absurdist playwright, N F Simpson (1919 -2011). And I imagine we will hear much talk of the lunatic imagination that could summon up a suburban man teaching 500 speak-your-weight machines to sing the Hallelujah chorus, or a world where, if your wife says, "There's a man outside wanting you to form a government," you reply: "At this time of night?"

It sounds as though it could only be written by a bohemian fellow with a big bushy beard, which is what the pictures of Simpson in his later years show, who died last year aged 92. But that's not how I remember him at all. In the first half of the 1960s, though already a noted playwright, he had not yet given up the day job, teaching English at what would now be called a further education college.

The City of Westminster College was a tatty building tacked onto the back of the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street. Its students were largely misfits like me. It offered wonderful teaching. If you took advantage of it, that was fine, and if you didn't, it was your funeral. As a refugee from a strict Catholic school, I had naturally never heard of anything so avant-garde as N F Simpson. I only knew that Mr Levy taught me French, Dr Warren history, and Mr Simpson English.

And Mr Simpson was the straightest of the lot. He was thin, short-haired, clean-shaven and angular, and wore dark suits, white shirts and sober ties. This was no eccentric rebel. Still, he was clearly several notches above the chalky pedagogues I was used to. He took us through King Lear, Jane Austen's Emma, and much else, and introduced me to Robert Browning, a poet of whom I knew nothing at the time, and to whose work I still return with pleasure. My clearest memory is of Simpson explaining "My Last Duchess".

A kindly man, I only once remember him being slightly caustic. I forget what I said, but he replied: "You don't think poems have to rhyme and scan, do you?" Of course not, I said, though, brought up on Chesterton and Kipling, that was exactly what I thought.

How good was he? The priests had virtually declared me unteachable. Under Simpson I got a grade A in one year instead of two. The author of One Way Pendulum knew a thing or two about teaching straight literature.