What makes a great teacher? Everyone has their own idea, but surely a passion for life, independence of thought, and doubtless an inability to suffer fools gladly.
William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Henry James were three of the brightest stars in the firmament that canopied Alan Scrivener’s tiny room at The Charterhouse, London, where he lived the last decade or so of his life. And all around The Charterhouse – whose foundations date to the 14th century and whose ghosts became his companions – spreads the great city whose history and byways Alan knew intimately.
Speaking of cities, Rome, Venice, Florence, Paris, Cologne, St Petersburg, and countless others were for Alan bottomless treasure chests of paintings, drawings, sculptures and architecture. And speaking of cities, the landscapes, culture, food and wine of certain countries in particular gave him unending pleasure over many years: above all, Italy and France and less obviously the British Isles. We once even planned a tour of Austria, to take in places associated with Anton Bruckner, but by then Alan had difficulty walking and it came to naught.
Alan Scrivener began his career as a pupil and later as a teacher and housemaster at The Grammar School, Midhurst, Sussex. He went on to teach English at Haverstock School, London (close to the Italian gelateria called Marine Ices, which was a favourite haunt), and then, emerging from retirement, he shared his gifts with the City of London School for Girls – in the Barbican. In some ways he was repaying his own debt to the former headmaster of Midhurst Grammar School, Norman Lucas who, together with his wife Vera, had gently and perceptively encouraged the sensibilities and abilities of the boy from Folkestone. Alan always spoke of them with enormous gratitude and affection.
That is not to say that he did not frequently come up against knuckle-headed proponents of the Thomas Gradgrind school of teaching. But Alan countered them with an insistence on learning from experience, on building resilience, on shaping individuals capable of thinking for themselves and standing on their own two feet.
Alan’s rooms at The Charterhouse were crammed with books and recordings, the organized flotsam and jetsam of a life awash with literature, music and art. He had craftily contrived to obtain other rooms nearby in which (as unofficial librarian) he stored more books donated to the institution. Visiting him, one could be sure of seeing a pile waiting to be read and, even when he could no longer go out (gadding about, he called it), there were new exhibition guides and reviews of “arty farty” events. In a special cupboard behind a chair for guests lurked a bottle of dry sherry and in the pantry behind his own chair a jar of olives. And with its stone mullioned windows, the room had about it something of the confessional.
What did Alan teach me? That children are always to be cherished (especially when they offer him a Bertie Bott Every Flavour Bean). That Shakespeare is the greatest living writer and that one should re-read his plays before seeing them performed (but remember that they were intended to be spoken aloud). That Mozart is the greatest composer of classical music (although he was wrong – it was Beethoven). And that a great deal that is still relevant to understanding human nature can be found in the novels of Charles Dickens and Henry James. He was shy, cranky, and self-indulgent; but caring, generous, self-deprecating, and often very funny. He was also a great friend.
A few years ago we made an expedition to Helpston in Northamptonshire, where the poet John Clare was born in 1793 and buried in 1864. We spent a pleasant afternoon walking about the village, viewing Clare’s cottage and the church, and we probably had a drink at the local pub. Clare wished to be remembered in just such a way and I think that Alan (although he would never have admitted it) shared the sentiment expressed in one of Clare’s last poems:
I would not that my being all should die
& pass away with every common lot
I would not that my humble dust should lie
In quite a strange & unfrequented spot
By all unheeded & by all forgot
With nothing save the heedless winds to sigh
& nothing but the dewy morn to weep
About my grave, far hid from the worlds eye
I fain would have some friend to wander nigh
& find a path to where my ashes sleep
Not the cold heart that merely passes bye
To read who lieth there but such that keep
Past memories warm with deeds of other years
& pay to friendship some few friendly tears