Christ Church, Oxford.
Being back in the UK always offers a chance to revisit Oxford and to revive memories of student days. Recalling the summer sunlight on cream-gold stone in my college, Christ Church, the earnest discussions over coffee, the hushed intensity of the libraries at night, the dusty thrill of old leather-bound books. And of my two tutors, Alban Krailsheimer and David Luke: both immense, eccentric characters. On a whim I googled their names on returning home from my day trip, and discovered with a sudden jolt that they had both died: one of them just late last year. This is my tribute to them.
* * *
I arrived in Oxford for my admissions interview back in December 1981. At the appointed hour, I was briskly shown into the tutor's rooms and told to sit on an armchair. I remember little now except the pale green of the furniture, the fact that my knees were up by my chin in the badly sprung chair (not the most elegant of positions from which to fight for your academic future), the book-lined shelves, and the impression of my two interviewers. One was a shambly, tousled, barrel-chested figure in a fisherman's sweater, with a soft voice and an inclination to giggle, and the other a slight, sharp, balding man in glinting spectacles, a pullover and tie, whose laugh was short and snappy, like a harsh cough. His black eyes drilled into me, and his rapid-fire staccato questions kept my mind racing. Such was my introduction to Drs. Luke and Krailsheimer.
It must have gone quite well I even remember laughing myself once or twice. Still, I emerged fairly overawed and afraid that was the end of my Oxford career, before it had really started. That afternoon, I looked out from the room where I was staying at the snow settling on the ground. Wintry branches in the college garden; cold birds pecking on the lawns; students hurrying past, their footfalls muffled. Black gowns against grey stone and white ground. My breath frosting the pane.
Then, out of a door in the staircase opposite, I spotted the diminutive figure of Dr Krailsheimer emerging. Before I even knew what I was doing, I dashed down the stairs four at a time and managed to walk nonchalantly past him in the quadrangle. He stopped, flashing me an inquisitive smile.
'Morris, isn't it? Still here then?'
'Er, yes sir. My train leaves this evening.'
'You know, you were rather good at the interview this morning. Now, don't tell anyone I told you this, but I think we're going to offer you a place. Right. I must be off. Good afternoon!'
The snow-capped gargoyles up above began to laugh. The shivering angels on the cathedral roof lifted their trumpets to the sky. I was as happy in that one moment as I had ever been in my life.
* * *
In my first term I soon got used to their ways the encouraging but nevertheless penetrating questions of Dr Luke, whose study always smelled of his two dogs Kublai and Khan. A room overflowing with opened books and scattered papers, with high windows looking out over the elegant quadrangle. A struggle to find a free space on the sofa. And there, in his familiar chair, this kindly man.
He was known for his eccentricities. Classical music blasting at full volume from his room, his obsessive attention to food. And on one legendary occasion, while walking his dogs through the quadrangle, on hearing a dog barking from inside a colleague's house. Dr Luke, world-renowned scholar, promptly opened the letterbox and started barking back.
Once when I was ill, he brought some biscuits and a small packet of tea to my room, appearing suddenly one fiery autumn evening, offering a few words of comfort, and then leaving just as quickly, not staying long enough to take in my choked thanks.
Meanwhile, over at Dr Krailsheimer's study, my punctual weekly knock on the door was always followed by an immediate 'Come!' shot as if from a rifle. Here, a different scenario: neat, ordered books, the window always ajar, even in winter, when Siberian blasts would keep your mind alert. A pale view out over a meadow down the path through the naked trees to the old river.
He would sit, eyes closed, as you read your weekly essay, then quote back to you large chunks of what you had written, tearing it to shreds in the process. Nevertheless he respected a student who would come back at him, even while crushing without mercy those who didn't.
I was aware even then of the fearsome reputations of these two men. And yet, they dealt with us with humanity and fondness. They were clear, committed and eternally passionate about their subjects, and they nurtured and encouraged us from book to book and from century to century throughout our time there.
* * *
Four happy years passed in what now seems like an instant, and I left, marginally less immature, slightly more knowledgeable, certainly emboldened for a life of travel. It was more than a decade of nomadism before I really got back to Oxford. I spent several lost hours wandering around the college, trying to relate to the impetuous young student who had looked out on the same scenes through these eyes. Staring at those old buildings and staircases and seeing ghosts. Hearing tattered fragments of conversation. Drowning in wave after wave of memory.
On that first return visit, I was standing in the city-centre when I had the idea of calling Dr Krailsheimer's number, just to find out how he was. I knew he had already retired. The phone managed half a ring before that familiar sharp voice said 'Yes?' I had barely got through the first surprisingly nervous words when he interrupted me. “Am I speaking by any chance to our young Welshman?” Relief flooded through me and we enjoyed a few minutes of genial conversation.
A mere five years later, time had taken its toll on his acute mind. I was at the college for a careers event. In the grand dining hall, I spotted him at High Table. I strode over, greeted him, and stretched out my hand.
I will not forget those eyes.
His piercing gaze was now slightly dimmed and vague. Where once his eyes had blazed, there was now a duller glow: as of dying embers. He looked at me, then through me, and said 'I'm sorry, I don't know who you are'. A little gentle prompting would surely help? My name, what I'd studied? I tried, but he turned away, sadly shaking his head, and resumed his meal.
A year later he was dead. He died in a monastery, in the company of a priest, like a dark, candle-lit scene from a Dutch Old Master. Solace, perhaps, during the last rattling breaths, then the slow descent of enveloping darkness.
Dr Luke's spiritual journey had been different. Learning of my youthful interest in religion, he once invited me once to a Russian Orthodox Church service. He had converted and was an integral part of the church community. So it was a shock to read in his obituary that he had, in his last days, turned his back on religion, unable finally to reconcile the idea of a benevolent creator with the evil permeating the world. No priest, no flickering candle here.
* * *
The relationship between these two great men over twenty years together at Christ Church was close but fraught Dr Luke's eccentricities always sending Dr Krailsheimer into a rage, while Dr Krailsheimer's attention to detail never ceased to amuse Dr Luke. But above all, there was always a fierce mutual respect for each other's intellects.
When Dr Krailsheimer was once asked about this turbulent rapport, he is said to have remarked 'We'd have divorced long ago if it wasn't for the children.' I was one of those children.
And though my recollections of those years are already changing colour and being tossed about like dried winter leaves, I will treasure the memory of these two teachers, until I too turn to dust.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007