I was going to write about losing my Sony e-book virginity. But instead I will write about being the intellectual grandchild of C.S. Lewis. (I’ll post my e-book reader piece next time - it’s long, and will improve with revisiting later.)
My PhD supervisor, Derek Brewer, died last month. He was a man for whom I had great respect and affection, though I had not seen him in recent years. He collected nice pottery things and they didn’t go well with my small, exuberant daughters. My last visit was fraught with the expectation of breakages; despite his impeccable manners I could see he was mentally clutching the edge of his seat as small child number 1 careered around his sitting room. I vowed to return when they were bigger and less dangerous. Sadly, I never did, and now it’s too late.
Derek went to a state school and then Oxford. It was an Oxford of earlier days, and he was conscious of people sometimes looking down on him for his humble origins. (Perhaps for this reason, he was particularly sympathetic to his half-educated, Latinless state school pupils later in life.) C.S. Lewis took him under his wing and nurtured his obvious talent; they became firm friends. Derek liked to point out that this made me C.S.Lewis’s grandchild in all but DNA.
Derek’s intellect was formidable, but he wore it lightly. Whenever I asked him what he was writing, he would reply ‘my usual Chaucer book’. The Middle Ages inspired him and he brought the period to life like no-one else, sharing his passion for it with a wide audience outside academe. Under his tutelage, the purity of the poetry and narrative shone through, any difficulties with the language falling away like autumn leaves. He showed me that all people, through all time, share the same emotions, concerns, dreams and humanity, and that it is the job of stories to build bridges between people and between ages. He passed on his conviction, shared with Lewis, that story is vitally important, the lifeblood of a culture, and immensely powerful.
Derek considered his PhD students his intellectual children, and he lavished the care and attention of a parent on many of us. He took delight in being the intermediary between C.S. Lewis and his 'grandchildren'. He had no time for elitism or the trappings of success. My meetings with him took place in the Master’s Lodge of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, often downstairs, in the family rooms, among the aforementioned precious pottery things. Once he bemoaned the fact that no-one came to talk to him at parties because they thought him too important and were intimidated. The recollection of that wistful regret has led me to seek out at social gatherings those people who might be excluded just because, through no fault of their own, they have a Nobel prize, a knighthood or a university to run. He showed me how to treat everyone and everything as equally valuable, though I fall far short of his high standards of courtesy.
Derek made me a medievalist, a writer and a populist in turn. I spent this morning in the University Library, transcribing chunks of a 17th century treatise on amputation to include in a popular history of medicine. It’s an endeavour he would approve of – bringing lost texts and nuggets of knowledge to light after centuries of obscurity. His reminder that you need to have plenty of ideas as only one in ten will be good has given me the courage to have lots of stupid ideas. I don’t know how much of this is pure Derek and how much is Lewis’s legacy. But we’ve come full circle, as I, like Lewis write for children – and like Derek write for the average person. I can’t match either of them for intellectual rigour - and only yesterday scuttled from the library tea rooms rather than confront the professor who ridiculed my medieval Latin thirty years ago. I’ll stick with the children and the general reader – they don’t care that I don’t know my ars from my elbow. But Derek and Lewis are both there, at my elbow, promoting the ars to the still stumbling grandchild, never laughing at the stupid ideas, but just helping me up to try again.