Obituary: G. A. Coulson

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The Independent Online
George Arthur Coulson, schoolmaster and codebreaker, born 15 November 1909, died Diss 20 January 1993.

FRANCIS KILVERT, who died at 38 in 1879, thought it a pity that even so 'uneventful' a life as his should pass without record: he was writing a diary that almost miraculously preserves the living details of his last decade. G. A. Coulson lived a comparably observant, undramatic life but kept no diary.

The son of a 55-year-old manufacturer of mining machinery at East Kilbride - then an industrial village - he went to Shrewsbury School and Magdalen College, Oxford, where his record, 'schoolmaster and civil servant', is accurate but unforthcoming. He was the kind of prep-school master overlooked by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall, and even more by the modern manglers of education. Like Kilvert, he delighted in teaching young children: they responded to him all through life, for he treated them as individuals. He taught French, took them to France, gave them a love of it. One of them is Michael Kennedy, now the Sunday Telegraph's opera critic, who says there was no music at all in his own family, nor, of course, in his own experience till George Coulson played his collection of 78s some evenings after school. There Kennedy listened to the Halle playing the Enigma Variations, and the first of his own books was The Halle Tradition; the third was a portrait of Elgar, followed by a study of Elgar's orchestral works. There's a sense in which Coulson himself wrote by proxy.

I found this out for myself: I wasn't one of his pupils, but in 1980 I was working on Cambridgeshire, the third of the Shell County Guides I did for John Piper. Coulson came with me on scores of enjoyable forays into that lowland landscape, and I am conscious that about a third of the book had come out of our joint experience, though he hadn't written a word.

The paradox is that - after teaching - words were his lifelong passion. His fluency in the language and literature of France, Germany and Italy enabled him to speak easily also in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and sit down to complete a Portuguese crossword puzzle in an hotel in Coimbra. At Bletchley Park, throughout the Second World War, he was absorbed in the demanding business of code-breaking: he worked in the German section, and in the life-and-death 'top secrecy' of Enigma. He was characteristically infuriated by the 'spilling of the beans', 30 years later, by some of the members of that most exclusive club: for him, the terms of the Official Secrets Act, once accepted, were binding. What Coulson liked to remember of Bletchley Park was the good proportion of professional musicians: Dido and Aeneas was among their successful productions.

By chance, when he still lived in London, an advertisement for the sale of Yaxley Hall, near Eye, in Suffolk, attracted him, and despite its dilapidation he bought it. From then on, Suffolk's landscape and idiosyncratic history became part of his life. When he saw that the membership of the Suffolk Preservation Society stood only at about a thousand, he became its membership secretary, and during the 1970s was virtually responsible for doubling it. He also took on the listing and measurements of serpentine, or crinkle-crankle, walls of which the major proportion stand in Suffolk. To the monumental Oxford English Dictionary - one of his bibles - he contributed no fewer than 30 additions and amendments.

He shared the last half of his life with Thomas Hutton, a landscape architect whose origins in Finland enabled Coulson to feel at home in one of the very few Western countries whose language he never mastered. Their hospitality at Yaxley was legendary. More recently, the generosity of their friendship is warmly attested by their neighbours and friends in Diss, where George Coulson died. He had lately been re-reading the entire works of Proust and of Balzac - in French, of course.

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