A few weeks ago, I attended – virtually, of course! – the Carcanet launch of John Birtwhistle’s latest poetry collection, “in the event”, with John himself reading. I met John just over forty years ago at the University of Southampton where I was studying English and John was ‘writer-in-residence’, or some such. There were writing workshops John ran attended by myself and some of my year’s cohort, but since then he and I haven’t been in contact. John went on to teach English Lit. at the University of York, and is now retired. His voice was as I seemed to remember it. Is the voice one of our attributes that fades last?
Reading through “in the event” – as I am now – I came across a poem dedicated to the memory of Astrid Berthoud. An on-line search confirmed that Astrid was the wife of Jacques Berthoud, the first lecturer I had at Southampton. I was so fortunate to have been in that position. Jacques stoked the fire under my love of literature, Shakespeare and Conrad, and I will forever treasure the kind words he said about my final essay for him at the end of my first term, his last at Southampton: “a pleasure to read”. Praise indeed. Jacques went on to lecture and at York University too and became head of department. He scholarship was so renowned that he earned an obituary in the Independent when he died in October 2011.
It was a fleeting acquaintance, to be sure. I only wish I had been able to tell him what it meant to me.
How much can my love of writing and reading be traced back to those days, and to JB in particular? It is, of course, impossible to say; but I have no doubt had he not been as brilliant, engaging, charismatic and inspiring as he was, then it would probably be a degree or two less intense than it has been over the years.
We probably come across such influences all too infrequently; those rare people who truly make a difference. When we do, one way or another, we should celebrate them.
Thank you, Jacques.