Obituary: Kenneth Monkman

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The Independent Online
"NOTHING odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last," said Dr Johnson. Byron, Richardson, Goldsmith, Smollett and Horace Walpole were equally critical. But Garrick early recognised Sterne's genius. So did Bishop Warburton, a severer critic than Johnson. Old Lord Bathurst, Pope's patron, paid him compliments, as did Lords Rockingham and Spencer. He was illustrated by Hogarth, painted for the Duc d'Orleans, imitated by Diderot and adored by Wilkes and Charles James Fox. He was to be Burns's "bosom companion", as to many others since.

No one has ever been able to explain the inextinguishable attraction of Laurence Sterne, a delight that transcends time and geography. Kenneth Monkman did not try: seeing no need to justify his hero, he took all this for granted; the ups, the downs, the faults, the genius, were all part of that unique Shandyism. And Shandy Hall - "shandy" is Yorkshire for crooked - was the name Sterne gave to his Yorkshire home, the house to which Monkman devoted half a lifetime of love and restoration.

It all started in 1963 when he visited Shandy Hall at Coxwold and saw what perilous state it was in. A medieval house with a chimney that defied the law of gravity, it still preserved the elegant veneer - a Georgian facade to the garden outside, some nice painted panelling and one of young Mr Adam's cast-iron grates within - that Sterne had given it. But only just - it seemed about to tumble down any minute.

Over the next four years the Laurence Sterne Trust was formed, with John Oates, incunabulist and Sternean, and William Rees-Mogg, city editor of the Sunday Times, as trustees. Captain Wombwell, who owned Shandy Hall, set the seal on it by making the property over to the trust on condition that it raised the funds necessary to repair it. J.B. Priestley wrote a foreword to the appeal and money began to come in.

Help came from an unexpected, if characteristic, quarter. Laurence Sterne rose from the dead. That is, the graveyard in Archery Fields in which he was buried, by Hyde Park in London, was evacuated by the Church Commissioners, and a skull - alas, poor Yorick - found, which (carefully measured by Monkman) proved to correspond, in its unusual length and narrowness, with the sculpted head by Nollekens. It was re-interred, with due ceremony, in the churchyard at Coxwold, and Monkman was photographed, beside the transplanted tombstone, in all the papers.

Rescuing Shandy became a national cause, and by 1972, in record time, the house itself was safe. One fine day in April that year, Frank Muir made one of his inimitable speeches to declare it officially open.

But that was only the beginning, as far as Monkman was concerned, and here we must take a turn, like Corporal Trim's stick, and go backwards. He was born in Carlisle, where his strict Methodist father was a banking inspector, and there found his first schooling. The path then takes another turn, for while his father was posted back to Harrogate, he went to Rydal School in Wales. That, however, led to Leeds University, where, improbably, he read Chemistry.

Due to illness he never took his degree, but turned to journalism and the Yorkshire Evening News. This brought him into congenial, rather Bohemian, company, and in particular to friendship with Francis Butterfield, a painter of real talent (too little recognised today). And he, in turn, introduced Monkman to Tristram Shandy. It was a gift that matured slowly, to be repaid only recently in a moving memoir of Butterfield. This recalled, too, the days of good Yorkshire beer and last trams home, of art, theatre and letters - abruptly ended when Monkman ventured a disrespectful piece in the paper on the twelfth of August and the ritual carnage of grouse. The proprietor had other views on the subject, and Monkman found himself on the road to London.

J. Walter Thompson was his first port of call, but in 1940 he joined the BBC News Department as a scriptwriter on Radio Newsreel, essential listening in wartime Britain, and the lifeline to truth heard in a whisper under the pillow in occupied Europe. The BBC was to be Monkman's career, producing and writing scripts, for 30 years, but his heart lay elsewhere. The seed sown by Butterfield began to germinate. He read the rest of Sterne, and then all the books about Sterne. That led to the books that Sterne had read, and that to the places where such books might be found.

Chief among these was the bookshop, not far from where he lived in South Kensington, of Peter Murray Hill, the D'Artagnan of booksellers in the grey post-war years. There he found others, Eric Bligh and Arnold Muirhead, who knew the byways of 18th-century literature too. He began to collect all the books he needed, and newspapers, too, in which Sterne's first writings appeared and the events of his Yorkshire youth were recorded. Prints and pictures followed, with other things that Sterne mentioned or might have had. The collection grew and outgrew the house in Clareville Grove.

But by now Monkman had seen his vision, of a Shandy restored and filled with what Sterne would have had around him. Briefly married after the war, in 1956 he met and in 1959 married Julia Bearder, and it was with her that in 1970 he moved into Shandy Hall, still in the throes of restoration. Together, over the last 30 years, they made the vision reality. Windfalls came their way: a medieval wall-painting found beneath Sterne's panelling; the French porcelain cow that Sterne had bought on his own "sentimental journey", retrieved from the neighbouring farmhouse to which it had drifted, through the generosity of its American finder; the Nollekens bust itself.

They survived disasters, when wind or weather threatened to undo their work. Visitors came in increasing numbers to the house, and even more to the garden that Julia, a gardener of genius, made round the house, and then extended to the quarry beyond. It became the most beautiful of such literary places of pilgrimage, visitors coming from all over the world.

Monkman was the genius loci, gently conveying his own enthusiasm to them all. Always elegantly dressed, with spectacles that might have belonged to Sterne's friend and portraitist Joshua Reynolds, he seemed to epitomise his subject. The digest of his learning began to appear, too, in articles on the complex genesis of Tristram Shandy and other Sterneana. The Shandean, an annual journal founded by friends and fellow admirers of his hero, was never without a major contribution from him. He was still at work on his edition of Sterne's sermons, the least-read but to him most deeply characteristic of all his writings, till shortly before he died. He is to be buried at the foot of Sterne's grave.

The Laurence Sterne Trust will perpetuate his work, in conjunction with the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies that York University has imaginatively created with this in mind. The vision will not be lost: "By all that is good and virtuous, if there are three drops of oil to be got, and a hammer to be found within ten miles of Shandy Hall - the parlour hinge shall be mended this reign."

Kenneth MacKay Monkman, producer and scriptwriter: born Carlisle 17 April 1911; married 1946 Vita Duncan (one son; marriage dissolved), 1959 Julia Bearder (two sons); died Northallerton, North Yorkshire 22 March 1998.