WORDS were the key to AB Cottle's character. He had a remarkable feeling for, and an ability to communicate, the sheer intoxication of using words well. Among his many publications, his Dictionary of Surnames (1967) for Penguin, his Triumph of English (1969) and his Names (1983) became best-sellers. In the United States, where there is a fondness for creating lists of greatest-ever people, and where Cottle's works are on the reading lists of many universities, his Plight of English (1975) and The Language of Literature: English grammar in action (1985) led one literary magazine to place him among the leading writers on the English language.
But Basil Cottle's tastes and scholarship were not confined to English. He maintained a childhood interest in archaeology and became President of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He lectured vividly on the monuments of Early Christian Ireland. He had three times visited Ireland to gather material for these lectures and had never experienced rain there, a circumstance he attributed to having been born on St Patrick's Day.
His first contribution to scholarship was an Albanian Grammar compiled when he was part of the Enigma team reading German cypher traffic at Bletchley Park, in Oxfordshire, during the Second World War. The route that led him to Bletchley was circuitous. He had begun his war as a private in the unglamorous ranks of the Pioneer Corps. Although he was subsequently transferred to the Education Corps, where he rose to be a Sergeant-Major, there was apparently an unwritten rule that no ex-private of Pioneers could be commissioned. When Cottle was summoned before an Army Board to see if he were officer material he was asked how a man of his talent and ability had wound up in the Pioneers. Cottle regarded the Board solemnly. 'I had influence,' he said. Wit outweighed prejudice. He was duly commissioned.
He might well have remained a Foreign Office expert on Albania had it not been that, in 1946, DG James, his old mentor at Cardiff University (where he had taken a double first), invited to him to Bristol as a lecturer in English. Despite having to take a large drop in salary, Cottle accepted.
At Bristol his foreign students begged him to 'say us jokes'. He did say them jokes. It was an effective way of teaching English and Cottle was never a man to miss using humour effectively. He became renowned at Bristol for his humorous doodles and rhyming musings, notably his annual pantomimes which were remarkable for their lack of plot or incident. The words and the verbal jokes were everything.
Two small examples give a flavour of the kind of thing he readily produced, especially when challenged to rhyme unusual words:
All that I feel, deep in my heart,
Faced with contemporary art,
Is anger, puzzlement and worry,
That I and it are contemporary.
There was a young lady of Yiewsley.
She inspected the paintings of Fuseli,
The subsequent night
Was all nausea and fright
And she woke up refusing her muesli.
Cottle wore his scholarship lightly and he was never enough of a university politician to become a professor. Yet his friends and pupils combined to produce a Festschrift of notable and important scholarship to mark his 70th birthday, a tribute to his ability to enthuse and inspire others.
Cottle had his own particular slant to everything. He was a good Churchman but he delighted in the fact that he was churchwarden of a church in Bristol that had disappeared in the 18th century. He continued in his retirement to be a useful source of advice on obscure medieval manuscripts, on King Arthur, on archaeology, on 19th- century poetesses in Accrington, in Lancashire, on the cult of the saints, and on church architecture. All were addressed with equal facility and depth of knowledge. He had recently completed a study of all 150 French cathedrals, which awaits publication.
His generosity of spirit made him much loved, even by strangers. When he was working on his French cathedrals he found himself in church in the outskirts of Paris. When the sign of peace was offered, there was a discontinuity between the French at the front of the church and the Vietnamese immigrants at the rear. Basil shared the peace with the Vietnamese. They brought their babies to him for a blessing, which he happily offered with style, appropriate words, a properly devoted spirit, and a smile. That is how he was: not quite with the establishment but doing good, and doing it well, and making people feel enriched that they had met him.
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