Author's pounds 5m bequest provides poetic justice for Oxford University

THE CONTROVERSIAL world of Oxford poetry received a pleasant shock yesterday with the news that an eccentric, and mostly unread, British author has bequeathed pounds 5m to an Oxford college, to endow a fellowship specifically devoted to teaching students how to write poetry.

Christopher Tower, who died on 21 September aged 83, set up a foundation before his death for the creation of two senior teaching posts at his old college, Christchurch. One is a junior research fellowship in Greek mythology. The other, more importantly, is a Poetry Studentship - a modest title for a major academic job, teaching and lecturing in the black arts of metre, rhyme, scansion and sublimity, across the university.

Mr Tower's bequest will also pay for the running of the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize, an annual competition open to sixth-formers, in which the winning versifiers will secure a prize of pounds 1,000 for their school as well as pounds 1,000 for themselves. Mr Tower has thus cunningly ensured that schools all over the nation will encourage their students to write poetry at prize-winning levels of brilliance.

The Tower bequest could hardly have come at a better time for the Oxford English faculty. Ever since the Oxford University Press publishing house voted to drop its poetry list on 20 November, a state of hostility and resentment has prevailed in the university town. Expressions of sympathy for the 26 sacked poets - some of them world-famous, some tipped for the Poet Laureateship, some about to celebrate their career-crowning collected works - have filled the newspapers.

Heated views have been exchanged between university administrators, English literature dons and the unsmiling businessmen at the OUP - the press is owned by the university, and its decisions are carried out with the dons' blessing. "I am ashamed of my university press," writes Jon Stallworthy, English tutor at Wolfson College, in the current Oxford Magazine, calling the cancellation of the list "an act of vandalism".

Christopher Tower's bequest, therefore, gives the university a chance to make amends for its apparently philistine, money-fixated, anti-poetic stance. "The benefaction is doubly welcome at a time when there is greater pressure on university and college funding from government, and when the Oxford University Press is closing down its poetry publishing section for commercial reasons," the Very Rev John Drury, Dean of Christchurch, said yesterday, hastening to reassure doubters that "English literature is a thriving subject at Christchurch", whose alumni include Sir Philip Sidney and W H Auden. "The importance of the benefaction from Christopher Tower is that it strengthens the tradition of poetry in the college and university, and opens it out to all the schools in the country,"

But who was the shadowy Mr Tower? He was a secretive, reclusive Englishman with a profound love of Arab lore, Greek topography and Mediterranean exoticism, but also a shrewd operator in Middle-Eastern realpolitik. He was also - piquantly in the current debate about the commercial value of serious poetry - a poet who could get his own verse published only by paying for it himself.

He was born in 1915 to a family of rich, property-owning diplomats. His father died in the First World War and, when his mother remarried, Christopher was packed off to a boarding school.

After graduating he went to Baghdad as private secretary to Sir Basil Newton, the British ambassador, learnt to speak Arabic, founded a camel corps and strode about in chieftain robes rather like Lawrence of Arabia. During the war he transferred to Libya, where, after hostilities ceased, he was empowered by the Foreign Office to set up a monarchy in Libya, under the Emir, King Idris. For the next six years he acted as chief adviser to the king. His advice ranged from high policy to low fashion statements. When the king wanted to have a sign put up over his palace saying "Palace of King Idris" in neon lights, Tower gently informed him that there was no similar sign at the end of the Mall saying "Palace of King George VI".

Then, abruptly, he gave it all up. He went on epic treks with Wilfred Thesiger. He lived a solitary life. No one seems to have known him well, not even his elder sister, Pamela. He never discussed what happened to make him leave Libya. He developed odd, quasi-Arab habits. He was insouciant about the earth tremors that occasionally rocked his huge apartment in Athens, which he furnished as an English stately home, complete with heavy chandeliers. When the next tremors came, he refused to be taken to safety, being too absorbed in one of the enormous jigsaws to which he was addicted.

He published several books of poems, most of them spectacularly unreadable retellings of ancient Persian legends. "I don't think he amounted to anything as a poet, I'm afraid," said his friend, Francis King, the novelist, yesterday. "But I loved his conversation."

He is buried in the village graveyard at Minstead in the New Forest, beside the grave of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His friends are trying to persuade the vicar to let them put up a headstone based on a portrait showing Christopher Tower dressed in Arab finery, complete with imposing Tuareg dagger.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine