Michael Gearin-Tosh was for nearly 40 years an inspirational teacher of English literature at St Catherine's College, Oxford, and an exotic figure in the university. Three years ago he achieved wider notoriety when he published a book about his long struggle with cancer during which he relied on a gruelling regime of alternative treatments. Living Proof was attacked by some members of the medical fraternity, but welcomed by others, and it struck a deep chord with many fellow cancer sufferers.
Perhaps rather surprisingly, since he never seemed other than British, he was born in Queensland, Australia. His father, Dr Clifford Gearin, was a surgeon who died when Michael was very young. He spent much of his life looking in both men and women for the father figure he had lost. Certainly he did not find it in Captain Tosh, a Scottish gentleman farmer whom his mother now married. Michael later painted his stepfather - whose surname he was required to conjoin with that of his own father - as something of a tyrant. His favourite hiding place in the Perthshire farmhouse where they lived, he said, was the kitchen, and his firmest friend the cook.
Michael was devoted to his mother, and, as he helped around the farm, so he lent a hand with her breeding of cocker spaniels. At Aberdeen Grammar School (where Byron had studied) and Dundee High School, it became apparent that he was exceptionally clever, and at the age of 17 he won an open scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. As he was so young, he spent a year studying philosophy at St Andrews University before going up to Oxford to read English.
After his finals he became a junior lecturer at Magdalen, and in 1965 - three years after the first students came to the college - he was appointed to a research fellowship at St Catherine's. He became a tutorial fellow in 1971, and remained there for the rest of his life.
Michael Gearin-Tosh seemed set for stardom as a literary critic. A senior colleague at St Catherine's justly said of him that he "combined intellectual strength with the most refined sensibility, possessing a mind that one only comes across very rarely". The trouble was that Gearin-Tosh was a painstaking scholar who found it difficult to stop digging. In his youth he helped Rachel Trickett, Fellow of St Hugh's College, later its Principal, with her important book The Honest Muse: a study in Augustan verse (1967). (The two became lifelong soul mates. Trickett, who died in 1999, was his rock.) But Gearin-Tosh never produced his own academic book. A magnum opus on Andrew Marvell was eventually put aside. His admirers had to be content with short, dense, elegant articles published in learned journals.
It was as a tutor that Gearin-Tosh shone brightest. Pope, Dryden, Marvell and, of course, Shakespeare were his greatest loves. His approach, no doubt partly shaped by his Scottish upbringing, was one of close textual scholarship. Pupils were encouraged to read carefully before constructing grand theories. He was expert at spotting the able pupil who had not yet blossomed. Having sympathetically received relatively commonplace ideas, he would accompany students to more commanding heights. His purpose was not to produce future academics but men and women who would go out into the world with rigorous and curious minds.
Oxford, though, was not everything to Gearin-Tosh. He loved London. He was never happier than when heading for Florence or Rome. Russia later became a great love. Gearin-Tosh liked the company of powerful politicians, and became a perhaps rather unlikely admirer of Margaret Thatcher. He also had a passion for the theatre, and for theatre people, and co-wrote a play about the Restoration poet Lord Rochester with the writer David Ambrose. He directed several productions. When Cameron Mackintosh endowed a chair of contemporary drama at Oxford, he turned to Gearin-Tosh and St Catherine's College. Visiting professors over the years have included Peter Shaffer, Arthur Miller, Richard Eyre, Alan Ayckbourn and Patrick Marber. Lectures were often followed by dinners to which Gearin-Tosh would invite an eclectic array of guests. He brought a sense of metropolitan excitement and sparkle to Oxford.
In 1994 he was diagnosed with myeloma - cancer of the bone marrow - and told that without chemotherapy he had a few months to live. With treatment he was offered no more than two or three years. He set about finding a cure, weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of various conventional and alternative treatments.
Living Proof: a medical mutiny (2002) was his first and only book, and it is a great one - eloquent, moving and persuasive. The blocks that had impeded a substantial academic work were triumphantly removed. All Michael Gearin-Tosh's finest qualities as a man and a critic are on display: his learning, his compassion, his rebelliousness, his scepticism (about some doctors), his dislike of pretension and pomposity, and his irrepressible sense of the absurd.
Gearin-Tosh did not want to die, though I do not think he feared death very much, and he had high hopes of God. Certainly he would not have wished to live on in any circumstances. In a sense his survival became an intellectual struggle against the medical establishment that had condemned him. Every extra day proved a point. He did not argue in his book that his regime of coffee enemas and juices would work for everyone, merely that they had worked a miracle for him. Living Proof was none the less embraced by many cancer sufferers; and it has made some doctors think again.
Michael Gearin-Tosh had many friends from all walks of life, and he died surrounded by some of them. One former pupil read out some poems by Marvell, complete with Gearin-Tosh's original points made gently in a tutorial 30 years ago. Another by the hospital bed was Arkadius Weremczuk, the fashion designer, and Gearin-Tosh's loyal and loving companion of nearly 11 years.
He did not, in fact, succumb to the cancer that he had held at bay so long, but from a virulent blood infection that spread alarmingly fast. This for him was a kind of victory. His last words on this earth were: "Let it go."
Stephen GloverReuse content