Harry Porter

Historian and mainstay of the Cambridge Footlights

Friday 09 January 2004 01:00

Harry Culverwell Porter, historian: born Bolton, Lancashire 9 November 1927; Research Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1953-56; Procter Visiting Fellow, Princeton University 1956-57; Lecturer in History, Toronto University 1957-59; Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley 1959-60; Fellow, Selwyn College, Cambridge 1960-72; Assistant Lecturer in History, Cambridge University 1962-72, Lecturer 1972-93; Senior Treasurer, Cambridge Footlights 1962-77, Archivist 1977-2003; died Cambridge 11 December 2003.

Harry Porter was a bachelor don par excellence. A historian of Tudor Cambridge, early Puritans and North American Indians, he was also an expert on drag artists who was the mainstay of the Cambridge theatrical club Footlights for over 40 years. He was much loved (in many senses) by generations of undergraduates, and is the hero of innumerable raffish or silly stories which seldom acknowledge his great intelligence and persistent virtues.

The elder son and namesake of a Bolton pharmacist, Porter went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1945. After obtaining a double First in the historical tripos, he served two years of National Service in the Army before returning to Cambridge in 1950 for postgraduate research supervised by the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History. He was awarded the Archbishop Cranmer Prize for 1952 and a doctorate in 1956.

Porter liked books, he wrote, to be "pleasantly allusive and idiosyncratic as well as original and informative: in a word, dandy". His first book, Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge (1958), is full of dandyish touches. Its epigraph from Proust - "Certain forms of existence are so abnormal that they are bound to produce certain characteristic faults" - seems like a personal apologia, and its elegant, humane prose is enriched by quirky asides and lusciously evocative descriptions.

Reformation and Reaction addressed great themes: the relationship between man and God, nature and grace, as fought over in Cambridge University during an epoch in which five of its Chancellors died on the scaffold for their beliefs. The book's moving final section, "The Universe of Grace", makes evident Porter's own Christian passion, although in middle age he became disaffected with religion.

Porter held academic posts in Toronto and California before returning in 1960 to Cambridge as a Fellow of Selwyn College. While in Toronto he began the work that resulted in the publication of Erasmus and Cambridge (1963). He also edited a collection of radical Protestant texts, Puritanism in Tudor England (1970). The erudition of his commentary was belied - perhaps diminished - by trendy allusions to Gide, Lady Chatterley and underground student newspapers of the 1960s.

Harry Porter was an anti- authoritarian who detested public moralists but had strict if unconventional personal rules; he was also, uncomfortably, a sensualist rather prone to self-reproach. "Conscience," he declared, "is the name given by the rigid to their prejudices", but he was bedevilled by his own painful inner contest of right and wrong. His wish to give pleasure, and increase happiness, was one of the mainsprings of his many amorous successes: he was a confident, affectionate and unselfish lover rather than merely lecherous.

I first met him when I went for interview at Selwyn in 1971. "Mmmmm," he said as he handed me a glass of sherry, "what have you got in your pocket?", and deftly plucked out a little volume of Proust. Most of my interview was spent discussing how gloriously Greta Garbo might play the Queen of Naples in a film version of A la recherche du temps perdu. He was witty and playful, with a rueful grin and the defensive conversational subtlety that so many gay men developed to protect themselves during the 1950s.

In the late 1960s Porter got into several tipsy scrapes, which left him both ashamed and angry. He resigned from Selwyn as soon as he received a tenured university lectureship, and bought a tall terraced house in Warkworth Street. For a time he seemed more content, but in 1978 a youth named Philip Seaman, who lived in the house, died there. This tragedy demoralised him. His drinking became depressive rather than convivial, and he developed a rigid and somewhat reclusive routine intended to exclude unpleasant surprises. Though always sympathetic and imaginative about other people's feelings, he shrank from emotional intimacies.

It was to Philip Seaman's memory that he dedicated his last book, The Inconstant Savage: England and the North American Indian 1500-1660 (1979), which he had prepared while a Visiting Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. His interest in the history of exploration resulted in his serving a term on the Council of the Hakluyt Society (1978-83).

Porter edited the Cambridge Review in 1952-53, and wrote libretti for three operettas which performed at Corpus Christi during the May Weeks of 1954-56. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, and was Senior Treasurer of the Cambridge Film Society from 1962 to 1973. Latterly, like Evelyn Waugh's Lady Metroland, he preferred watching television to seeing friends. His pocket diary was criss-crossed with closely written entries suggesting a strenuous social life: in fact the times and names were his careful schedule of television programmes which he could not bear to miss. Latterly, too, he cut his once gargantuan alcohol consumption by confining himself to cider, which he drank in dainty sips from minute sherry glasses.

Most memorably, perhaps, Porter was for 15 years Senior Treasurer of Cambridge Footlights, the comedy revue and cabaret club for undergraduates which has trained so many television stars. He provided invaluable continuity to Footlights, contributed to its camp reputation, and was a discreet influence on generations of Cambridge comedians and scriptwriters (always candid about dud acts and unfunny skits).

After retiring as Treasurer, supposedly after VAT inspectors raided his house, he served as Footlights' beloved archivist until his death. There was a large and mixed attendance at his funeral: scholars from Corpus Christi, comedians including Ben Elton and Bill Oddie. But the many current undergraduates, talking affectionately about Harry but playing their lines for laughs, would have pleased him most.

Richard Davenport-Hines

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