Obituary: Raymond O'Malley

Owen Chadwick
Thursday 15 August 1996 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


F. R. Leavis left the reputation of being the most cantankerous teacher of English in modern times; to the extent that some of his colleagues refused to speak to him. Raymond O'Malley was dedicated to Leavis and his ideas on the teaching of English. Even when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, he felt Leavis be his inspirer.

O'Malley was the least cantankerous of persons, with a sweetness of nature and a sense of infinite quiet and gentleness, yet underneath he had unshakeable convictions about the nature of civilisation and the essential part which language and its proper use must play in creating and fostering a humane society.

From his first teaching post at Dartington Hall, the progressive school in Devon, he spent a long life in encouraging young people in both aspects of English literature: the right use of the language in the present; and the love of its great writers of the past in prose and poetry, a love which must help us to know what words can do, both for good and for ill. This affection for the language always had a moral content; we do not deal only in taste or in pleasure, we deal in demagogues, and hoodwinking by politicians, and the disadvantages of a system of advertising, we deal in the sinister ways in which words can corrupt and lower as well as the ways in which they can elevate to greatness.

Perhaps he was not very Greek in his outlook but to O'Malley, like the Greeks, the words truth and beauty had a powerful moral content. He tried to show his pupils the preciousness of books; as visions of where we are not, they take us to other countries which we have never seen, or to sciences of which as yet we know nothing, or to the past which humanity cannot experience with directness. Teaching in his first few years when dictators ruled almost all Europe but France and Scandinavia, he could contemplate with horror the burning of books, and forms of censorship, and the barring of foreign broadcasts, and yet these were all proof that tyrants fear the printed word and freedom of the mind more than they fear bombs.

When the Second World War came O'Malley registered as a conscientious objector. He had to appear before more than one tribunal and they said that he must do agricultural work, about which he knew nothing. He obeyed the order by going with his first wife Dorothy to work a croft in the Highlands not far from Kyle of Lochalsh. When the war ended he published an account of the experience in a book of the first rank, One-Horse Farm (1948), certainly the best book about crofting ever written and one of the best about life in the Highlands, a look back upon four years of a slogging, heartbreaking, muddy, middle-infested and enchanting way of existence.

Central to the enchantment is the moral quiet of the book against its background of distant slaughter in Europe, still with a sense of wonder at all the fresh air, too much fresh air, and the curious behaviour of the animals, and the friendliness of the Highlanders, and the moorland and bog and bracken.

He could be fascinating about the nature of writing. Moderns read millions of thrillers. Shakespeare wrote a thriller in Macbeth, quite a good blood- and-thunder though the plot is not of the best. O'Malley would then ask, what did Shakespeare put into his thriller which made it a far bigger event than any number of detective stories or melodramas? In teaching about writing there were two qualities which he especially sought. The first was simplicity. He had a faith that the most complex ideas are capable of being expressed in uncomplicated language. The second was proportion. More than many teachers, he valued the discipline of the precis - see if you can say the same thing in a much smaller space and then test what you have lost by doing it.

For someone who so loved words, he used surprisingly few. Yet his silences, or his little sentences, stirred other people to talk and to think. They were the sort of silences which it was fun to be part of. This applied also to what he published. He wrote or contributed to several short books to help people to write English and show them how to study it, including English I-V, co-written with Denys Thompson, and published from 1955 to 1960, Precis and Comprehension (1964, published as Comprehension and Summary in 1970), and several volumes on poetry. But in One-Horse Farm he did write a book of stature, which shows how much we missed because he was so austere in his reluctance to use many words.

His first wife died suddenly and in 1949 he married the cellist Pamela Hind. He shared with her an expertise on folksong, a form of music which fitted his love of what was direct, and simple, and of the people. He had never been a churchgoer, though his attitude to life was so full of reverence, but with her he found refreshment in worship, and in his last years the love of quiet meant that he was attracted towards the way of prayer in the Society of Friends.

Owen Chadwick

Raymond O'Malley, teacher: born 15 August 1909; Lecturer in English, Southampton University 1959-61; University Lecturer in English, Cambridge University 1961-76; Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge 1972-77; married 1936 Dorothy Apthorp (deceased), 1949 Pamela Hind (two sons, one daughter); died 25 July 1996.

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