Argus title : My lasting regrets at a friendship lost forever
Stephen Medcalf died on 17th September 2007 in Littlehampton. He was 70 years old, a scholar of classics and European literature and one of the finest teachers I have ever known. He lectured in English at the School of European Studies at Sussex University from 1963 to 2002.
I find it almost impossible to accept that Stephen is gone. He was so much larger than life that it seems inconceivable death could contain him.
In health, Stephen was a tireless walker and inveterate traveller to exotic places. One could imagine him in death, wandering out of heaven’s gates, jacket flapping and hair flying in the wind, off to explore other parts of the universe that he couldn’t quite reach when he lived in Lewes. Stephen was born in Romford, Essex on the fifteenth of November 1936, the son of a school master and the youngest of four children. He was educated at Chigwell School and subsequently went to Merton College, Oxford to study classics.
After a while, he changed to the study of English, working under the supervision of legendary teachers and writers such as Hugo Dyson, a friend of Tolkien and C.S.Lewis, and the writer Iris Murdoch. They remained life long influences upon him.
After a year as a schoolmaster in Malvern, Stephen was appointed to a teaching post at the newly formed University of Sussex. He relished the opportunity that Sussex gave him to work across academic disciplines, with people who possessed a range of different talents. Avid for learning, he was as happy to work with scientists and astronomers as classical scholars and literary critics.
Stephen loved the new university. Author and academic, Gabriel Josipovici, a former colleague and close friend wrote: “…there, like so many of us, he found himself. For though by temperament an Oxford man, with his High Anglican leanings, his love of good food and wine, and his bachelor existence, he confessed to me that those early years at Sussex had made all other institutions of higher learning seem too cosy, not intellectually demanding enough. He gloried in the chance to teach his beloved Greeks, to master the intricacies of Dante’s thought and verse, to combine with historians, philosophers and musicians on courses ranging from Plato to the English Romantics”.
An inspired teacher, he worked to make classical and mediaeval literature live in minds and hearts of his students. He was passionately interested in modern writers such as TS Eliot, CS Lewis and William Golding, not least because they were, like him, rooted in classical tradition and prepared to grapple with issues of good and evil, faith and morality.
Stephen was deeply religious and his Anglicanism coloured every aspect of his life. He seemed to be living at two different levels, constantly exploring the surface of things, but at the same time seeking out a deeper truth within them.
He published relatively little. He planned a major work on the Bible and another on Eliot. Neither was ever completed remaining, like his life, works in progress. Yet Stephen’s knowledge and ideas informed the writing of many others.
His colleague Brian Cummings wrote of him: “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.” Ian McEwan was probably the most famous of his students and Stephen was proud of that.
His students held him in awe, both for his extraordinary knowledge and his eccentricity. Norman Vance, his old friend and former colleague recalled that he could effortlessly supply “…extensive and telling quotations in several languages from memory, so absorbed in his subject that he could take off a shoe to remove a small stone without ever faltering in his delivery or being aware of what he was doing.”
The untidiness of his room was legendary. Every surface was covered with books, papers, and crumbs yet he seemed to know where everything was. It was rumoured that he kept a pet mouse in his room and that cleaners had stamped out in a fury and refused to return. His small house in Lewes was just as chaotic. He had no car, could not type and never learned to use a computer.
He had a large head and pale wild hair, which he constantly pushed back from his forehead. When I first met him in the late 1970s, I remember thinking how remarkably like Beethoven he looked, but without his angry and anguished gaze. Stephen’s eyes were quiet and terribly shrewd behind his thick spectacles.
When I was a student at Sussex University I used to see him in the distance, his bulky body and rolling gait easily visible against Basil Spence’s stark and open campus. Usually he was headed to the library, books, papers, bags and general detritus clutched under his arms. Sometimes he’d stand under the great trees behind the Meeting House, watching the nesting rooks as they wheeled and cawed overhead.
The sight of him always made me smile.
Students commented that Stephen would be better suited to the spires and cloisters of Oxford than the modern and experimental architecture of Sussex University. Certainly his High Anglicanism and passion for old churches did not seem to fit with the ultra modern ecumenical Meeting House with its cascade of coloured glass. Yet he seemed to love it and it was he who always planned the Christmas celebrations.
He did not marry and was never a father. Yet in a strange way he did give life to a child. I remember clearly the awe and humility with which he told me the remarkable story, which to him illustrated the power of providence.
As he walked through Lewes one night, Stephen heard the faint cries of a baby girl. Wrapped only in a paper shopping bag, she had been abandoned in a telephone box. It was mid-winter and had he not discovered her she almost certainly would have died. Years later he met the girl, now grown to adulthood. In 2003, apparently at Ian McEwan’s suggestion, he recorded his experience as a Guardian Christmas story.
Stephen was never one of my tutors. I can’t remember how I came to know him, but he became very important to me. In those deeply rationalistic and atheistic times, he was one of the very few people I could talk to about religion or the classical texts which I had read in translation. He introduced me to CS Lewis
He and Teresa Hankey also introduced me to St Julian’s at Coolham, then an Anglican retreat centre, and we went there together twice. I wanted to read Greek and he encouraged me to learn. I regret I never did, and am ashamed to say I still have a copy of a book on Homeric Greek which he lent me then.
I lost touch with Stephen after I left university. I became involved in politics and he and I never agreed on this. He shared many of CS Lewis’ ideas about benevolent patriarchy, authority and tradition, while my feminist soul cried out against this. I disliked his high Toryism, while he could not understand my socialism. We fell out twice, once over the miners’ strike and another time over my support for SWAPO, the liberation army fighting Apartheid in Namibia. The conflict didn’t go deep, but our lives simply went in different directions. Yet I often thought of him and hoped we’d meet again.
As time went on, I became busier and busier and still I didn’t see him. As the years passed, I suppose I mellowed and grew less rigid in my certainties – and so the differences between us seemed less and less important. I could have posted back his book, but I didn’t do so, thinking “I’ll take it back to him myself, when I have time”.
Two years or so ago, I bumped into him in Lewes. I was rushing to a meeting and there was little time to talk. He was always a shy man, but he kissed me goodbye – something he had never done before. Looking back on it, I suppose he knew how ill he was. I never saw him again.
Stephen’s faith was so great that it’s hard to begrudge him the big adventure that death would have seemed. But I feel very sad.
I look at the book on Homeric Greek, with its tatty green paper cover, and know I never will return it to him. It is something I will regret until the day I die.