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Obituary: Professor Boris Ford

Donald Mitchell
Tuesday 26 May 1998 23:02 BST

BORIS FORD was one of that remarkable generation of writers, poets, educators, administrators and musicians who attended Gresham's School, Holt in the 1920s and 1930s. Two of the most prominent among them were W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. It was Ford's ability to combine very many of those talents, interests and activities within the confines of his own and, it must be said, unique personality that marked him out as an exceptional and highly influential figure. He was a kind of walking, talking and teaching intellectual collective in his own right.

He showed his remarkable gifts early on, while still an undergraduate at Downing College, Cambridge, when he wrote an essay on Wuthering Heights that was published by F.R. Leavis in Scrutiny in March 1939, even before Ford had taken his finals. There is no doubt that he came to share many of the ideals of Leavis and his journal but perhaps could never be described as a Leavisite. It may have been necessary and indeed culturally important for Leavis to make exclusion and exclusivity major features of his critical policy. It certainly resulted in a marvellous critical legacy. But this was not Ford's strength, nor his nature. He was magnificently open to the broader range of creative human interests and activities and, above all, their vital inter-relationships.

In short, it was the interaction of culture and society that fascinated Ford, and stimulated some of his best writing and teaching, and some of his most notable publishing projects. Among these were the Pelican Guide to English Literature (in seven volumes, 1954-61), an enterprise that the ever-paranoid Leavis believed had drained Scrutiny of many of its contributors and thus aided its demise, and the later and yet more ambitious Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain (in nine volumes, 1988-91). It must have been of no little satisfaction to Ford that when the Pelican Guide came to be revised and reissued in 1982-88, it had expanded to no less than 11 volumes.

In such enterprises as these Ford showed his editorial skills, and he was to leave his mark on both the Journal of Education (1955-58) and Universities Quarterly: Culture, Education and Society (1955-86). It was typical of his innovating approach to education that he was among the first to realise the potentialities of the media and, for a very short time (1957-58), was head of Independent Television's schools' programmes department. Alas, this came to an abrupt end, but not before Ford had launched an idea that eventually would lead Britten to create in 1957 one of his most famous works for children, Noye's Fludde. I think one may reasonably guess that this work precisely represents what Ford would have had in mind as "education" at its best.

It also reminds us in the most timely fashion of Ford's passionate commitment to music. This was to find its fulfilment in institutional terms only after he had served as Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Education at Sheffield from 1960 to 1963, when he took up a similar post at the newly founded Sussex University and held it from 1963 to 1973. During that period he was Dean of the School of Culture and Community Studies, an educational concept that one might think perfectly represented Ford's ideals, ideas and prime interests. CCS, as it was known, was the living embodiment in its structure and content of Ford's long-standing preoccupation with the inter-relationship of culture and society.

Only one strand was missing from this: music. It was due to Ford's own musical skills - he had been head chorister at King's College School, Cambridge before attending Gresham's - his informed enthusiasm, and the support of Asa Briggs, the Vice-Chancellor, that music was established at Sussex University in 1971, and my help sought in setting up the subject as the university's first visiting Professor of Music. These were extraordinarily creative years at Sussex, to the making of which Ford made a sustained and brilliant contribution. The admission of music as a subject was by no means easy to achieve and might not have been achieved if Ford had not exerted his considerable powers of persuasion, matched only by his persistence and exemplary advocacy. I know that in recent years it continued to give him great pleasure to think of music continuing to flourish at the university and that, of his four children, two of his daughters, Catherine and Jessica, were actively involved with music and musicians.

In 1973, his first marriage ran into difficulties, much to the regret of his family and friends. Noreen was a woman of vivid charm and exceptional spirit. She died in 1995 but her welcoming home and generous hospitality during those Sussex years are well remembered. Ford moved on to Bristol University and was Professor of Education there until 1982.

After his retirement his interest in music was widened to include instrument- making; he and his second wife, Inge, together built a harpsichord. Likewise his long-standing interest in Britten - we had taught together in CCS a course on The Turn of the Screw - had a later flowering in his last publication, an anthology entitled Benjamin Britten's Poets (1994).

Boris Ford may have been persistent, perhaps sometimes infuriatingly so, but he was rarely combative. It is his gentleness, rather, that I and many other colleagues and friends will remember. It was his characteristically gentle, quizzical smile that he summoned up when I saw him for the last time in hospital when he had only a few hours to live, and - unbelievably for this most articulate of men - could no longer speak. But the smile was as eloquent as ever.

Boris Ford, educationist and writer: born Simla, India 1 July 1917; Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Education, Sheffield University 1960-63; Professor of Education, Sussex University 1963-73, Dean, School of Cultural and Community Studies 1963-71; Professor of Education, Bristol University 1973-82 (Emeritus); married first 1950 (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved), second 1977 (marriage dissolved); died London 19 May 1998.

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