Obituary: Philip Balkwill

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The Independent Online
Philip Graham Balkwill, schoolmaster; born Cobham, Surrey 8 March 1940; staff, Heathmount School 1961-66; staff, Charterhouse 1966-97; married 1971 Lesley Gregg (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1982), 1989 Mary Barter (nee Francis); died Godalming, Surrey 21 August 1997.

When he appointed Philip Balkwill to teach at Charterhouse in 1966, Oliver Van Oss confirmed the adage that great headmasters make great appointments. Balkwill was himself a Carthusian, but Van Oss could have had no stronger supporter as he swept away a litter of dead traditions; Van Oss's belief that education was about opening hearts as much as minds could have had no finer exponent. To the end of his life, Balkwill embodied and enacted a determined idealism.

Born in Cobham in 1940, Philip Balkwill came from a literary and musical family. His father had played a fundamental part in the creation of BBC news broadcasting from Alexandra Palace; his father's mother, who worked for the publisher Jonathan Cape, had done much to further the career of H.E. Bates. His mother's father, Hugh de Selincourt, wrote The Cricket Match (1924) and was married to a concert pianist.

After attending Charterhouse, Balkwill read English at Oriel College, Oxford, then, unsure of his intellectual capabilities, taught for five years at a preparatory school, Heathmount. This time away perhaps helped him never to be sentimental about his own schooldays or to use them to judge innovation; indeed, he very rarely referred to them at all. When he returned to Charterhouse, he had gained the confidence to be his own man. Though he did many of the standard schoolmasterly things, leading expeditions and so forth, and was to be a successful housemaster, his voc- ation was very specifically for teaching, and teaching of an extraordinary kind.

Reading a poem with him was, simply, to learn to read. Pushing his pupils to think about every word, its meaning and its nuances, he brought even 13-year-olds to the point at which a poem as tough as Empson's "Missing Dates" suddenly became transparent. He then stood back. As George Steiner says, the classic text is one which reads us; again and again, Balkwill allowed his pupils to feel themselves being read by their texts with no mediation or direction from his vigorous personality.

Balkwill achieved this not only with his favourite Hardy, with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, Larkin, Heaney and, memorably, the American Buddhist Gary Snyder, but with Virgil. His teaching of Latin made even the most reluctant understand that Virgil had been a man putting one word after another, choosing one in preference to another, in the pursuit of clarity of vision. Virgil became, as in few classrooms, a dynamic presence.

One effect of his ability to withdraw himself was that he knew his pupils much better than they knew him, an unusual position for any teacher to be in. Leaning slightly forward, he looked at the floor to think; although he put on weight in later life, the combined effect of hair which had greyed early, naturally high colouring and mischievous eyes was animated and animating.

It was obvious, of course, that he was not always an easy man; he was capable of both anger and bloody-mindedness. He did not always, as they say, bear fools gladly. Equally, he was capable of startling insight and kindness. So far as he subscribed to any philosophy - he had no interest in politics - it was to a Forsterian liberalism of the most trenchant kind. This implied an absolute respect for others as individuals, together with a hatred of cruelty, an irreverent sense of humour and a severe mistrust of authority.

He loathed feeling that he ought to lock his front door, because it diminished the joy of life. That joy, expressed in his love of his family, of literature, of mushrooms, of music, of cooking, of "ludicrously cheap" (ruinously expensive) wines, of railways, was the greatest gift he gave.

The utterly uncomplaining courage and faith with which he endured cancer for the last 18 months of his life were of a piece with his uncompromising generosity as a teacher and as a friend.