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
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?