Obituary: J. A. Cuddon
Saturday 16 March 1996
You might say that he was every inch that old standby, the school "character". He was also a writer, the first I had ever seen at close range. In some respects, he remains the most extraordinary writer I have ever known.
In 1967, when I first became nervously aware of him, J. A. Cuddon ("Jack", after his initials, to pupils, "Charles" or "Charlie" to his friends) already had a literary reputation that extended well beyond the end of the school drive. He was in his late thirties then, and had just published his fifth novel, The Bride of Battersea. Its predecessors, A Multitude of Sins (1961), Testament of Iscariot (1962), The Acts of Darkness (1963), and The Six Wounds (1964), had all earned him glowing reviews in the national press, and had been translated into several European languages.
But this was only part of his output; there was also The Owl's Watchsong, a sublimely funny, idiosyncratic, erudite portrait of Istanbul. There were at least a dozen plays, of which one, The Triple Alliance, had been staged at the Royal Court in 1961, inspiring the Daily Express to opine that Mr Cuddon was "the Chelsea Tennessee Williams"; three libretti for the composer Anthony Milner; and countless essays, articles, short stories and poems in publications from the Observer and Guardian to our school magazine, the Portcullis. Moreover, he had also managed to squeeze in a brief but lucrative career as a male model (he was an exceptionally handsome man, whose craggy features, like Beckett's, grew finer with advancing years), appearing in a number of television and poster commercials, including one for Whitbread beer which won an industry award.
How on earth had he found the time? A cynic might reply that he poached it from hours he could have spent in the classroom or marking essays, and even his most devoted friends, whose number I was to join in later life, will concede that he was not perhaps the most workaholic of teachers. (The playwright Steve Gooch, one of his pupils, says that, however promptly you raced away from your last class, Mr Cuddon could always be seen off in the distance, racing still faster.) When he did teach, though, he could be . . . well, the inescapable word is "inspiring". In a verse letter to his old teacher, the poet Clive Wilmer recalls how in an average English lesson, Charles Cuddon might be heard digressing on
morphologies of line,
The erotic love that figures the
Grey falcons stooping, the Igna-
Forms literary and biological -
All of the things, in short, I wished
Or thought I should, once you had
sketched them so.
Those sceptical of Cuddon's unorthodox teaching methods may care to reflect that their views were not shared by the Sultan of Brunei, who engaged him at a generous fee as private tutor to his nephew for several summers running. And those doubtful of his commitment to the school in which he worked from 1954 until retiring in 1993 should ponder the estimated 6,000 man-hours he spent voluntarily coaching rugby, cricket, hockey, fencing, judo and boxing; or the plays he staged (dangerously avant-garde authors such as Genet and Ionesco a speciality); or his civilising influence as an administrator of so many other areas of school life, from the Library to the Common Room.
No, the secret of Charles Cuddon's productivity was simply his power of tireless concentration. At the end of a long day of teaching, coaching and socialising, he would simply take the phone off the hook and write into the night. Not a day passed, he said, when he did not put in at least three hours - "Anything less than three hours is not enough." Application of this order enabled him to produce his most awe- inspiring publications, A Dictionary of Sport and Games (1980), which runs to more than 2 million tersely eloquent words detailing every pastime known to man since around 5,200 BC, and his 1,000-page Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (third edition, 1991), the best reference work of its kind I know; he was updating this when his cancer was diagnosed, and continued work on it throughout his illness.
Charles Cuddon's sense of self-discipline must have been a family gift. His father, Brigadier Phillip Cuddon, had been a distinguished combatant in the Gallipoli campaign, France, and what was known as the Black Sea Army, earning two MCs; his mother, Joan (nee Cummings), was a nurse who had served in Greece and Serbia. They met and married in Istanbul, the city which was to inspire some of their son's most beguiling prose. Both parents inspired in him a fascination for the Balkans, and he spent a great deal of time travelling throughout the region, especially when he was researching his magisterial Companion Guide to Jugoslavia (1968) and studying medieval frescoes in Macedonia and Serbia on a grant from the Goldsmiths' Company.
He was educated by the Benedictines at Douai - his novels, unfashionably preoccupied with questions of sin and grace, show a refined and sober awareness of Catholic theology - and, then went on to Brasenose, Oxford, where he ultimately earned a BLitt on the concept of evil and the devil in medieval and Renaissance literature, also representing the university at rugby, cricket and hockey. Despite his energies and conspicuous talents, however, Cuddon suffered a number of professional frustrations later in life: he completed at least three novels and a biography (of Lola Montez) for which he could not find publishers, and left many other manuscripts unfinished. Through all this time, his talents as an editor continued to be in steady demand - he compiled best-selling collections of ghost and horror stories for Penguin, and most recently edited Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner for Everyman.
But his personal life flourished: in 1974 he married Anna Dale, and his joy in their marriage and their three fine children Sarah, Katie and Ben was plain to all. When I met up with him again in the mid-Eighties, the ominous figure who had so alarmed me in my schooldays now appeared the most benign and modest of men, and the Cuddons soon came to be close, unflaggingly loyal friends. His family's love and support was of incalculable comfort to him through his months of illness, and his faith remained firm to the end. I last saw him three days before his death. Dreadfully enfeebled by chemotherapy, he was still capable of an affectionate clasping of hands, a glorious smile and some characteristically gracious words of farewell. "Marvellous party," he managed to say, as though we had just spent one of our livelier evenings with a bottle or so.
That is how I shall remember him. I hope the world at large will also remember him: as a gifted novelist (Testament of Iscariot, an anguished spiritual self-dissection, seems to me to stand favourable comparison with Camus' La Chute), as a distinguished and indefatigable scholar and as the author of one of the greatest travel books in the language, The Owl's Watchsong, which ends by evoking night in Istanbul, where
. . . there is nothing except the slabs of the moonlight falling through the tall windows, marbling stone and revetment, the sound of the water lipping and nuzzling the rocks, the scurrying of rats in the garbage; and across the water, through the ruins, over the tottering wooden houses, the twisting streets, the broad courtyards, the desolate cemeteries, there comes the belling and the pealing of the owls, the watchsong of the owls, and all Caesars dead.
John Anthony Bowdon Cuddon, writer and teacher: born Plymouth 2 June 1928; married 1974 Anna Dale (one son, two daughters); died London 12 March 1996.
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