Obituary: Professor Ian Gregor

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The Independent Online
Ian Copeland Smith Gregor, literary critic and teacher: born Newcastle 20 January 1926; Assistant Lecturer, King's College London 1956-58; Lecturer, Edinburgh University 1958-65; Senior Lecturer, University of Kent 1965- 69, Professor of Modern English Literature 1969-88 (Emeritus); books include The Moral and Story (with Brian Nicholas) 1962, William Golding: a critical study (with Mark Kinkead-Weekes) 1967, Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy: a critical edition 1971, The Great Web: the form of Hardy's major fiction 1974; died Canterbury 13 November 1995.

Ian Gregor was an acute literary critic but rarely an assertive one. The best of his work focused on the paradoxes and ambiguities of Modernism as he himself broadly conceived it - a self-conscious, exploratory mode traceable back to the great Victorians.

He had an instinctive relish for the internal conflicts of that movement, the tensions between realism and formalism, self-absorption and social concern, faith and doubt. His favourite writers, who included Arnold and Hardy, Woolf, Forster and Eliot, William Golding and Graham Greene, worked along and across the fault-lines of our age. He saw them as struggling on behalf of us all. Readers had a corresponding responsibility to be attentive, to query sympathetically, to compare notes. Writing, reading, criticism were a shared activity, a Common Pursuit.

In that sense he was true to the spirit of F.R. Leavis, a critic he greatly admired. It was never his way to step back and pronounce judgement. Rather he would submit himself to what he read, and offer his own responses as contributions to continuing debate. Typical is an introductory sentence in The Great Web (1974), his sensitive study of Hardy's fiction: "What is a Hardy novel, what does it feel like to read, why does it take the form it does - these are the questions that shape what I have to say."

If that approach lacked the provocativeness which excites academic notoriety it sponsored rewarding intellectual exchange at every level. Gregor was widely known and respected in the profession, both in Britain and in the United States. As both teacher and writer his love of dialogue made him a natural doubles player, a stimulating partner. Some of his best work was produced in collaboration - notably with Brian Nicholas and Mark Kinkead-Weekes. This bias was related to his social warmth. He had an enormous range of friendships, of various sizes, shapes and functions, which he nurtured with the assiduity of a mechanic looking after a complete set of spanners.

He was a witty lecturer and a vivid seminar leader. His classes would be enjoyed, but never taken lightly, because Gregor could be formidable as well as entertaining. He used the whole keyboard: suave aphorism, blunt vernacular, frosty rebuke, infectious giggle. It was a measure of his popularity that he was in regular touch with pupils from every stage of a teaching career spanning more than 30 years.

In personality he was a sturdy and appealing mongrel. Chance and choice had taken him across the whole spectrum of British higher education. He studied at Newcastle and Oxford, and taught at King's, London, Edinburgh and finally the University of Kent, where he was a founder-member of the English Board. Somewhere along the route he acquired a notable urbanity of manner, slightly episcopal in timbre, as befitted his Catholicism. But within that carapace lurked a practical joker, a raconteur, a Geordie, a devoted Newcastle United fan, a Bevan boy who had spent three years in the pits. Comfortable in any company, he would never have baulked at introducing Jackie Milburn to Virginia Woolf.

As an educationist perhaps his greatest strength was something that would elude the current X-ray tests of Audit, Assessment and Appraisal. He fostered a sense of community and a sense of occasion. His personality was a strong field of force: any group to which he belonged would become a team, evolving its own style and traditions and private jokes. When Kent was a New University, Ian Gregor made a crucial contribution to the development of its distinctive and congenial ethos.