In memoriam Alan Scrivener (1934-2014): Keeping past memories warm

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(1)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(2)Alan(3)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.

Alan(4)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

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12 comments on “In memoriam Alan Scrivener (1934-2014): Keeping past memories warm

  1. Ingrid Mair says:

    Lovely Tribute Philip, thanks a lot . ingrid

  2. Graham Cottennden says:

    A beautiful tribute to a lovely man. He taught me from 1961-63 when I was only 10 and we kept in touch ever since. He encouraged a boy who didn’t look as though he had a hope in life and was a great friend. I will miss him.

  3. Jessamy Goddard says:

    Wonderfully put! Lots of love

  4. Nancy Schmenkel says:

    Eloquently said, Philip.

  5. kristinegreenaway says:

    Wonderful tribute to a man who obviously had a great impact on the man and father you have become.

  6. adiffidentdrum says:

    I’ve only just come across this, but thanks for the words which brought back happy memories for me, and for the pictures as I sadly never managed to visit Alan at Charterhouse, and it is lovely to see him in his natural habitat.

  7. Daisy Henderson says:

    I have just been to an evening devoted to the influence of Paris on the writings of TS Eliot. I saw Simon Callow read The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and thought back to Mr Scrivener reading it to a 15 year old me. How he captured the character, his indecision and anxieties in a way that Callow, for all his theatrical intonations could not.
    Mr Scrivener shaped me more than anyone in my life. I wanted to be as cultured as him, to make links across theatre, music, art and novels.
    I owe him a great debt and everyone in my life, who I value, has heard tales of him. He was a wonderful person and an inspiring teacher.

  8. Linda says:

    Mr Scrivener was a real nice English teacher. I was at Haverstock Hill Secondary School in 1973.. and Mr Scrivener was a great and dedicated tutor. I am sorry he has gone from us.

    • Philip Lee says:

      Do you remember Marine Ices? It was a favourite of Alan’s. When he left Haverstock, we “liberated” some early 20th century ink bottles from the English store cupboard. They became a feature of his flat at The Charterhouse.

  9. Toni Hayes (nee Cutler) says:

    Alan and I were friends at our Junior School in Potters Bar, and I remember being invited to tea by his parents. We lost touch when he went to Midhurst and I went to a local grammar school, although we maintained an occasional correspondence over the years. We met once in his college when I was visiting a friend at St Hilda’s, Oxford, and since then we have just gone our separate ways. This beautifully written and moving tribute, which I have only just discovered, has brought back happy memories of days long gone, and I am sad to know that Alan is no longer with us. Thank you Philip.

  10. benlevay says:

    Most enjoyable. I often ask people how many truly inspirational teachers they had and the answer is nearly always two whether they went to Harrow or Scunthorpe Secondary Modern (if there is one). Scriv was one

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