7th February 2009

Bataille said that what distinguished the human species biologically from other mammals was shame about performing sexual acts in public and the care of the dead. “Dogging” and Stan Collymore seem to have cut the list by one but care of the dead is essentially human. One penalty of spending my life in two countries is that I often miss funerals and memorial services but by great good chance, the date set for Derek Brewer’s memorial service coincides with my changing planes from Pittsburgh to Sri Lanka and I travel up to Cambridge on a brilliantly sunny morning with snow on the ground – almost the only combination which makes the Fens beautiful. Stephen Heath, friend and collaborator of nearly 40 years – we edited Signs of the Times: Introductory Readings in Textual Semiotics in 1971 – provides a perfect light lunch with a couple of glasses of excellent wine and we reminisce about Derek.
Derek was the senior English Fellow at Emmanuel when I was appointed as a Research Fellow and it was he , a conservative medievalist, who thus offered me, a radical modernist, the first and indispensable rung on the academic ladder. The paradox is less acute than might first appear. Medievalists have long espoused the fundamentally anthropological approach which was the intellectual underpinning of the Parisian radicalism of the sixties and, at least in Cambridge, conservatives and radicals held each other in intellectual esteem reserving their scorn for the outdated Leavisites who, by the early seventies were an utterly spent intellectual force. Actually Derek didn’t scorn anybody He was a patient listener, even to youthful diatribes against the old, and he had the art of making the gentlest of arguments in a very self deprecating way. This meant that it was impossible to ignore what he said. He was the most persuasive advocate of the truths of conservatism that I have met.
When I left Emmanuel after two years to take up an assistant lectureship in the English Faculty and a Fellowship at King’s he had a very secure place in my affections. At that time Assistant lectureship lasted 5 years at the end of which the Faculty had to decide whether to convert it into a full one. In my case they decided to do so by a vote of 10-9, a vote which accurately reflected that the Faculty was hopelessly divided between a Leavisite rump and an unlikely coalition of radicals and conservatives. The full lectureship created, I still had to be appointed to the job and the appointments committee voted 4-3 against me. This vote was followed by a period in which the university tried to find ways of keeping me while respecting its own devolved constitution. Towards the end of this period and when it was becoming clear to me that, unbelievably on any objective academic criteria, I would not be appointed, Derek was named to the appointments committee. I went to see him to ask that he request the vote be retaken. In some ways, even when I look back on it, it was a remarkable conversation. But in that Michaelmas term of my fifth year I had had so many unbelievable conversations with so many of the university’s senior figures that nothing surprised and I was very fond of Derek. He said that it had been suggested that the case be re-opened but that there were voices, arguing for a quiet life, who said that I was anyway going to leave Cambridge to pursue a more worldly career. I said to him that it was not a question of my future but one of simple justice. I said that I felt like a small boy who had been set upon by a gang of bullies and that such bullying should not be rewarded. We left the conversation there but a couple of days later he rang to tell me , in a very solemn voice which did not invite conversation, that he would be asking for the vote to be retaken.
This time the vote was 4-3 in my favour but 5 votes were needed for an appointment and the stage was now set for ‘The MacCabe Affair”. It was difficult then, and it has been impossible since, to explain to anyone outside the walls that I had no animus against Cambridge, indeed that the university had treated me as a prince of the blood for a decade. Derek’s actions, which were brave as well as honourable, stood for the good faith of the university and my colleges. Above all it meant that I was spared any bitterness, a great boon at such a young age.
By great good luck I had gone to see Derek a month before he died. I was apprehensive that his motor neurone disease would be far advanced but apart from the fact he was in a wheelchair, he seemed unchanged and we chatted for nearly an hour much as we had talked thirty years before in Emmanuel.
The memorial service is very moving. Geoffrey Hill reads Herbert’s The Anthem with a passion and intensity which makes one think that one has never heard poetry before. Barry Windeatt his student and colleague of many years delivers a wonderful address which really does evoke the man. Afterwards to Emmanuel. The Front Court can rarely have looked so beautiful – sunlit snow on the ground and a moon hung in a blue sky behind the clock.


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