Stephen Medcalf

English scholar at Susse

Friday 28 September 2007 00:00
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Stephen Ellis Medcalf, English scholar: born Romford, Essex 15 November 1936; Lecturer in English, Sussex University 1963-79, Reader 1979-2002 (Emeritus); died Littlehampton, West Sussex 17 September 2007.

Stephen Medcalf was a scholar, academic, bon vivant, traveller, bibliophile, visionary, clubman and mystic. He was the teacher of Ian McEwan – at Sussex University – and friend of William Golding, things of which he was intensely proud, but most of all he was a rara avis.

Eccentric was a word often used of him, but even among eccentrics he stood out. He never affected oddballness but was just unembarrassed about who he was. For instance, he was endearingly baffled that people found his physical appearance strange, when he would rush into a lecture, his wild hair straggling in all directions, and his trousers held up with a necktie. Yet he was also not indifferent to clothes: he sported several dandyish waistcoats and possessed an astonishing pair of aubergine-coloured leather trousers.

When he retired from the English department at Sussex after 40 years, his room needed archaeologists more than cleaners, the floor several inches thick with documents, books, and the occasional wine glass. This was Medcalf's quintessential den, where students and friends would find him smiling enigmatically like one of T.S. Eliot's cats, sprawled in an armchair, dispensing impossible learning. Possessed of a prodigious memory, he could quote scores of lines of poetry at will. With this learning he was unthinkingly generous, and if he wrote fewer books than he could have, he was the author of ideas in the books of many others.

Medcalf was born in Romford, Essex in 1936. His father, a deep influence on him, was a schoolmaster. He was educated at Chigwell School and then Merton College, Oxford, studying Classics up to Mods before switching to English. In the process he began a lifelong friendship with A.D. Nuttall. Their intellectual lives became curiously intertwined: Nuttall took a job in the newly founded Sussex University and after a year's schoolteaching at Malvern, Medcalf followed him in 1963.

The 1960s were the heady days of the new universities, when the whole academic syllabus was there to be reinvented and boundaries between disciplines were tested or discarded. Perhaps part of Medcalf hankered after the caricature life of an Oxford don, yet he remained ever faithful to the ideal of a new university, and as a practical solution to his own complete lack of domestic skills he turned the restaurants of Lewes into a private version of Oxford High Table. He dined out several times a week, often in company, dispensing his table talk like a latter-day Dr Johnson.

Medcalf dedicated himself to the syllabus of the emerging School of European Studies. He taught over an unusually wide range, and was a champion of the Arts/Science programme. His desire for what he called a "holistic" approach to the history of culture culminated in The Later Middle Ages (1981), an experiment in collaborative scholarship, incorporating the work of art historians and historians alongside substantial essays by Medcalf himself. He was promoted to Reader at Sussex, and there were high hopes of further volumes. His aims were typically ambitious, perhaps unfinishable; notably a book on T.S. Eliot which would trace a poet's intellectual progress year by year. An increasingly Shandyesque project, it was not unproductive; he filled dozens of notebooks with his huge, cursive handwriting.

Yet his best work was essayistic, in the form of long reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. His startlingly insightful obituary of William Golding for The Independent is one of the best pieces of criticism on that author. He shared with Golding many interests, and corresponded with the novelist over many years. Medcalf's pupil Ian McEwan was the spur for Medcalf to publish a remarkable piece of writing as a Guardian Christmas story in 2003.

It was the true story, a modern fairy tale, of how Medcalf had discovered a foundling baby girl crying from inside a paper shopping bag in a telephone box outside Lewes Castle in mid-winter. Medcalf recounted the extraordinary narrative with meticulous accuracy combined with an urgent philosophical interest in the themes of chance and providence. The climax of the story is an epiphanic accidental meeting in Lewes between the girl, now a grown woman, and her idiosyncratic saviour, now on the point of old age.

Perhaps Medcalf's interests were too wide for a mere career. He had a cast of mind that was mystical and exploratory rather than analytic and evidential; this may have been what made writing so difficult for him. His lectures, which he delivered in a hushed rapturous tone, were quite uncapturable in print.

He was a difficult man even for his friends to know well. He was solitary and soulful, often seeming to be lost in thought. Yet he loved company, long walks and pubs, and although it was as impossible to imagine him marrying as him finishing his book on Eliot, he had many women friends and would no doubt have agreed if one of them had proposed to him. His family and friends despaired of his chaotic home life, in his little house below Lewes Castle in which clothes and 16th-century printed books were piled at random. Despite his poor health he appeared oddly indestructible; told by his doctor to take some exercise, he amazed everybody by learning to ride a horse.

Perhaps he would have found life easier in an earlier century. He would have made a good monk, copying manuscripts and reading the lectionary, although he would have missed eating several helpings of pudding. While he never sought ordination ("there are too many priests already") he was a devout Anglican.

Yet if this makes him sound like a hermit, he was also an indefatigable pilgrim. One of his most idiosyncratic and seemingly out-of-character obsessions was exotic travel. Few people so completely English can have travelled so far and observed so feelingly what he saw. He seemed always on some journey of his own, ever restless and curious. Perhaps towards the end he felt himself to be an anomaly, a body out of place in its own time. Yet with his passing went a little of the breath of the English past, its poetry and its spirit.

Brian Cummings

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