'Go and Make Some Coffee, John. and Tell Me, Which of Those Manuscripts Do You Think Is in Wordsworth' S Writing?' ; Tales of the City
Walsh, John, The Independent (London, England)
At the end of Martin Amis's debut novel, The Rachel Papers, the callow adolescent hero Charles Highway goes for his entrance exam interview at an Oxford college. He is cocky, cynical, hyperarticulate, well-read, ferociously au courant with all shades of modern literary theory - and he has no actual opinions of his own. At the top of a staircase, in a room creaking with antiquity and bookish learning, he is interrogated by an English tutor called Charles Knowd, a languid and pooh-poohing figure some way removed from the dry intellectual you might expect in the city of dreaming spires. Knowd sees right through Highway's armour of clever-dick learning, and recommends that perhaps he should start reading literature and deciding whether or not he actually likes it - the key moment at which our smug teenager is confronted by his own shallowness.
The languidly subversive tutor was, in real life, Jonathan Wordsworth, who died last week aged 74.I bring it up because he was my tutor as well, in the mid-1970s, and I thought the world of him' his influence hung like a glowing northern light over the lives of an army of students who passed through Exeter College, Oxford - and later St Catherine's College - through three decades. A large, intensely physical man, he was amazingly un-donnish: he dressed in jeans, he affected a country-squire upper-class drawl (in which Othello became "Ore-thello"), and his long lank black hair flopped over his brow, until he swept it back in a theatrical gesture. He had a noble forehead and a large nose, just like his great-great- great-grand-uncle' a picture of William the Poet, showing the great man in reflective mood, hung in his study and Jonathan, in mid- lesson, would fall half-consciously into the same pose, hand on cheek. He didn't care for student bullshit. If you used gestures during a tutorial, his eyes would follow your hands with fascination. If you earnestly promoted a doomed theory, he would regard you with a look of incredulity, as if amazed at the nonsense one human being could talk. He wasn't keen on symbolic vagueness either - when looking at Blake's illustrations for the Songs of Innocence, he'd say, "So you say this burning tree is meant to be the organ of generation, do you? Hmm. Does your cock look like that?"
He could be a little old-fashioned about knowing what was what: if he told you to come to his rooms on Staircase One at teatime, it was the height of folly to show up at 4pm or 5pm, or any time that wasn't 4.30pm. When the girls from St Hugh's (all the colleges were single-sex in those far-off days, children) came along to share criticism classes with us at noon on Fridays, Jonathan would regale the scholars with sherry' just in case anyone couldn't stomach his bone-dry fino, he brought an alternative along. …