Professor Graham Rees
Scholar and inspirational teacher celebrated for his editing of Francis Bacon
Thursday 20 August 2009
In January this year the scholar Graham Rees was awarded an OBE. "So what was your OBE for?" his nurse asked him a few days before he died. "Services to pedantry," he told her.
The joke renders the man. Firstly in that he could have mustered the spirit to make a joke at all at such a time, secondly in that the last person he ever exempted from the mordancy of his wit was himself. In fact, he was one of those scholars who give pedantry a good name. The great scholastic project which he had for many years directed and which must now go on without him – a 15-volume critical edition of the works of the philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon – is widely held to be, on the evidence of the six volumes so far published, four edited by Rees himself, a model of the most scrupulous and enthusiastic erudition. I have seen fellow-scholars quite beside themselves with excitement about the meticulousness of his editing, the quality of his translations from the Latin, his grasp of Bacon's "philosophical lexicon", and this in an academic world not renowned for its generosity of spirit.
I first met Graham in 1974 in Wolverhampton, at whose Polytechnic we both found ourselves teaching English. For six years we shared a rathole of a room – more a broom cupboard than an office – halfway up a staircase that connected Languages for Business and History. Here, with our knees touching, we wrote lectures, marked essays, gave individual tuition, smoked, snoozed and kept each other going with sardonic observations on a town and institution neither of us could believe we had landed up in.
Graham called Wolverhampton his Babylonian Exile. I called him my saviour. He showed me how you could satirise an institution without ever giving less than your best to its students or departing from the highest ideals of teaching. The more fatuous the directives that floated down to us regarding the importance of keeping our work "relevant" to a post-industrial community, and the necessity of eschewing élitism, the more determinedly Graham stuck to his conviction that teaching is about opening a world of thought to students, not depriving them of it. Students appreciated the respect he showed them: his lectures on the Philosophy of Science were probably the best attended of any at the Polytechnic.
He was not someone you expected to find in such a place. Though he had himself studied English at Birmingham he looked an Oxbridge man. His build was that of the attenuated ascetic, his demeanour ironic, his voice extruded. There was a measured precision in him which might well have frightened students off had he not been possessed of a wonderful laugh, with which he was never frugal, and the most sociable of dispositions. He loved learning but he loved life more. He could have passed for a man of God – in whom he did not believe – but also for a Restoration rake. He drank Banks' Bitter by the gallon and indulged me in endless games of lunchtime snooker that often spilled over into the afternoon without either of us potting a ball. Never before or since have I seen anyone discuss Bacon's epistemology while chalking a cue. That no man ever looked more out of place at a snooker table he knew and relished, though he enjoyed the advantage his great height gave him of never needing to employ a rest.
Looking out of place, particularly in his own body, was something he enjoyed playing up to. He tried country living for a while, dressing himself up in a squire's outfit and buying a rifle. I spent a Sunday morning shooting on his "estate". Neither of us knew how to load or aim a rifle or had any taste for killing. We shot the grass for half an hour, Graham starting at the report of his own rifle, then repaired to the local. His friends, similarly, tell of his reluctance to go near water. He neither swam nor sunbathed and was rarely seen, whatever the weather, in anything other than a green corduroy suit. Holidaying in France once, and growing increasingly exasperated by people urging him to dip at least a toe into the water, he walked fully clothed into the pool, shoes and hat and all, allowing the water to cover him completely, and emerging only, as though from a tutorial, when he had given everyone a scare.
If his later years were marred by illness, they were also his happiest, in part because he had slipped the springes of the West Midlands and been appointed to a chair in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, but chiefly because of his partnership with Maria Wakely, a Joycean whom he met at Wolverhampton, converted to Francis Bacon, and married in 1995. Up until the hour of his death they were completing a joint project – a history of the creation of a national culture through the printed word, to be published in November under the title Publishing, Politics and Culture: The King's Printers in the Reign of James I and VI.
With Maria, Graham enjoyed a rare reciprocity of intellectual fervour and personal devotion. Happy is the man in whom the love of work and the love of a woman are so perfectly fused.
Graham Charles Rees, scholar: born Salisbury 31 December 1944; Assistant Lecturer in English, Shenstone New College, 1969–72; Part-time tutor, Open University, 1971–81; Lecturer in English, 1972–74, Senior Lecturer, 1974–98, Wolverhampton Polytechnic and University; Research Professor of English, Queen Mary, University of London, since 1998; Fellow, British Academy, 2005; OBE 2009; married firstly Elizabeth Warren (one daughter), secondly Julie Chance, 1995 Maria Wakely (two stepchildren); died London 23 July 2009.
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