Author's pounds 5m bequest provides poetic justice for Oxford University
Tuesday 22 December 1998
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.
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