Christopher Gosden: Traveller and linguist who taught English to the Portuguese Prime Minister
Saturday 06 August 2011
Christopher Gosden was a traveller, performer, translator, linguist, writer and an exceptional teacher.
I met him in the summer of 1960. The poet Michael Horovitz who knew Chris from their days at Oxford, introduced us. Chris had told him he wanted someone to rent half his council flat on Brixton Hill and Horovitz suggested I might fit the bill. The three of us spent a night listening to Charlie Parker records, discussing French poetry and drinking coffee. In the morning, I moved in.
Chris had read English and Modern Languages at St Catherine's College. His first job after coming down was as a supply teacher at the then innovative Tulse Hill Comprehensive School. He came home one day looking weary and told me he had been teaching a class with a particularly disruptive pupil called Livingstone. A lad with too much to say for himself, was how Chris described him.
Once his stint at Tulse Hill came to an end, and clearly having made little impact on the newt-loving future Mayor of London, Chris took his guitar and spent a year singing in a Stockholm night club. When Chris came back, he did some translating to make ends meet. We spent our time together swapping skills and stories. He taught me rudimentary French and how to play the guitar; I showed him the way to look at paintings and how to make them.
I discovered that his father had been the rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber, killed in action. His mother remarried after the war and emigrated to Canada. The flat was in his mother's name but as long as the rent was paid, Lambeth Council didn't bother us. But Chris could not settle. He got a job teaching English to tea planters' children in Sri Lanka. In late 1962, he packed a small bag – he always travelled light – put his guitar in its case and left Britain for good.
While teaching in Colombo, Chris met Maria do Vale Cartaxo, who shared his limitless joy in discovering new cultures and countries, and after an engagement of 20 years, Chris married her. He was never one to rush into things.
Eventually tiring of Colombo, with its snobby planters and tea parties, Chris bought a motorbike. With Maria on the passenger seat he motorcycled to Hong Kong. It was the first of two major excursions. His route took in India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia – who were both at war – Malaysia, Indonesia and finally the Philippines. The journey took almost two years.
After Hong Kong, and a spell teaching in Japan, Chris's next port of call was Lisbon and a job translating at the British Council. It was a fortunate choice: Portuguese television wanted someone to front a series of how-to-speak-English programmes, and turned to the British Council for advice. Chris was the obvious candidate. The series made him a Portuguese celebrity and led to a remarkable request. His appearances caught the eye of the recently elected Portuguese Prime Minister, Mário Soares. Having realised the importance of improving his English, Soares asked Chris to give him private tuition. For four years, Chris and Maria do Vale would spend August with Soares at his summer home in Praia do Vau, grappling with conjunctives and drinking fine pink wine.
Having not seen his mother since she moved to Canada, Chris made Vancouver Island his next destination. It was to be the beginning of his second major journey, a crossing of the two Americas. He bought a VW camper and set out on a route through western North America, down the west coast of South America, round the tip of Chile and then back through Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. He decided to end the trip in Brazil, a complex country that had always fascinated him. He spent 14 years in Rio, mainly teaching up-to-the-minute English to young Brazilian advertising executives. He also taught Brazilian footballers: he once sent me a signed No 10 shirt that Zico had given him.
When Chris and Maria do Vale had exhausted Rio, they headed back to Portugal and put down roots in the Algarve. The University of Algarve offered Chris the post of Professor of English, and even though he was suffering the very early stages of Parkinson's Disease, he willingly accepted.
At first he refused to name his illness; he said that it should be treated like an unwanted guest and not be given the dignity of a name. He also believed that in this way it would not get the better of him.
In some respects he was right: he lived with Parkinson's for 14 years. Although badly affected at the end, he could still walk unaided (with great difficulty), talk a little, write a little, and, when given the opportunity, continue to enrich the lives of all who knew him. His last email to me, sent a few months before he died, was typical. "They say that Parkinson's is a progressive disease," he wrote. "They are wrong. It is downright bloody reactionary." I have never known a more honest man.
Christopher Bryan Gosden, writer, teacher, broadcaster and performer: born London 24 June 1934; married Maria do Vale Cartaxo; died Alvor, Portugal 6 May 2011.
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