Graham Martin

Passionate scholar of literature and a founding academic of the Open University
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The Independent Online

Charles Graham Martin, English scholar and teacher: born Glasgow 19 September 1927; Assistant Lecturer in English, Leeds University 1955-56; Assistant Lecturer, Department of English, Bedford College, London University 1956-58, Lecturer 1958-69; Reader in Literature, Open University 1970-78, Professor of Literature 1978-92, Head of Department 1981-92; married 1956 Molly Yardley (died 2002; two stepsons); died London 21 January 2004.

One of the founding academics of the Open University, Graham Martin was invited by Arnold Kettle in 1970 to join the team who went on to write the university's first, ground-breaking, interdisciplinary Arts Foundation Course.

This became the platform on which a series of carefully structured, high-quality arts courses were subsequently built, spanning the period from the Renaissance to the present, and including interdisciplinary courses on the Enlightenment and Romanticism, as well as specifically literary courses such as "Twentieth Century Poetry" and "Literature in the Modern World" - the textbooks, videos and audiocassettes of which were soon to be found in university libraries everywhere, and which went on to reach a mass audience.

In 1978 Martin was appointed Professor of Literature and in 1981 took over as Head of Department. It was his profound conviction that university teachers tended to address their peers rather than their students in what they wrote. His own practice, as a writer, editor and the leader of a team of academics at the Open University, was to create a way of writing "teacherly" material that gently invited readers to join in the exploration of texts, without imposing any single-minded or narrow views.

Tens of thousands of adult students will remember with gratitude the clarity and authority with which he brought them to think about and enjoy literature and culture in this tentative, yet searching, spirit. Generous, accessible, innovative, yet intellectually demanding, Martin seemed to know what you were trying to say better than you yourself did, and how to help you to say it. A passionate advocate of "openness" in literary study, he made both texts and their contexts available without compromising the importance of either.

Coming from a long-established Glasgow business family, Graham Martin attended Glenalmond College in Perthshire, a Scottish Episcopal establishment founded (as Trinity College) by W.E. Gladstone for the sons of ministers. There he shone academically, played rugby for the First XV, and sang in the choir (he later confessed to knowing the Psalms by heart). He was expected to join the family tannery firm, and took a BSc in Chemistry at St Andrews University.

An exchange visit to Union College, Schenectady, in upstate New York, kindled an interest in English literature. After graduating, he taught science in a London school, where the headmaster, realising his young teacher's true avocation, encouraged him to apply for a scholarship to Oxford, which he won. He read English at Merton College but, as was the practice then, was "farmed out" to a tutor at Corpus Christi, the remarkable F.W. ("Freddy") Bateson, under whose spell he developed a lifelong passion for literary study.

With his close friend Al Alvarez, Martin founded the Critical Society, aimed at providing undergraduates with approaches to English not then available in Oxford. Invited speakers included Wallace Robson, René Wellek and F.R. Leavis. The influence of the last upon Martin proved a lasting challenge.

Meanwhile, he fell in love with and married his young widowed landlady Molly Yardley, taking on the responsibility of being father to her two sons with characteristic energy and commitment. It was a relationship that was to last a lifetime; and many students, colleagues and friends will remember the warm welcome they received from the Martins, at home or at OU summer schools, as Graham launched into yet another lengthy, eloquent argument (like many Scots, he believed a day without a good argument was like an egg without salt), only to be checked by a snort of affectionate derision from his wife.

After obtaining a First at Oxford, Graham Martin set out upon an academic career, obtaining a temporary post in English Literature at Leeds University and then a Lectureship at Bedford College, London University. Charismatic, left-wing yet undogmatic, he had already begun teaching adult evening classes, and publishing critical work - notably on W.B. Yeats in Essays and Criticism, and on T.S. Eliot in a symposium he edited, Eliot in Perspective (1970). His relative slowness to respond to the growing "publish or perish" pressures now a familiar feature of academic life led to difficulties that might have proved disabling if he had not been appointed to a university in which deadlines were (and are) absolute.

Martin was a supporter of the New Left, CND and later of Amnesty International, and his politics were an integral part of his approach to literature, which was none the less consistently tolerant and undoctrinaire, and aimed at the "common reader" rather than any pre-selected or defined élite. His first OU teaching text began with English nursery rhymes and "The Charge of the Light Brigade", and ended with Kafka, Lukács and Adorno. He went on to produce compelling material on King Lear, Great Expectations, A Portrait of the Artist, D.H. Lawrence and Industrialisation, and the poetry of Yeats, Eliot, and Auden.

As he observed in one of his contributions to Boris Ford's Pelican Guides to English Literature, those whom we come to call "great writers" give us access to "different ways of living in a human world, different ideological shapings of human experience"; thereby challenging the "provincialism of the present"; a point to be remembered when beset by theoreticians, whose inroads upon the study of literature Martin felt must be understood (he once devoted a year to "reading theory") if they were to be sensibly countered. He never felt there was any final answer when dealing with literary texts, any more than with the latest critical or theoretical approach to them; and remained suspicious of those who claimed there was.

Martin's appetite for ideas was enormous; as was his interest in poetry (he was an active board member of the Poetry Society), popular culture (he was Deputy Chair of the OU's widely influential Popular Culture course), and music - a last, incomplete project involved collaborative work on music and writing in the European context. He believed in the importance of literary study as an aspect of the broader social and cultural life. His legacy is to have increased the love and understanding of literature.

Dennis Walder