Saturday, 27 September 2008

A D Nuttall

It's strange how people who teach you can affect you deeply, though they may have had scant sense of you as an individual. Some tutors and lecturers I've had at Oxford have affected me personally by their examples as human beings; some have affected me as models of intellecual breadth and inquiry; and very many as both. I've never once been taught by anyone less than brilliant, which is one reason why I will defend Oxford to the teeth against its detractors.

It was with delight that I read in yesterday's Independent that Tony Nuttall, retired Professor of English and Fellow and Tutor at New College, had published a new book on Shakespeare. Professor Nuttall had taught me for a single term, once a week, in my first year at Oxford. They were thrilling classes: he ranged effortlessly over vast areas of Classical and Renaissance literature, and I still remember numerous bon mots and observations on Herbert, Donne, Marlowe, Spenser, de Laclos, Shakepeare, and many others. I used to love rushing round from another lecture through New College's manicured quad to this beautiful room, where all the Classics and English first years were gathered. The class was theoretically 'Critical Commentary' - we'd be given chunks of Renaissance English literature and expected to talk learnedly about them. The room was immaculate, but not fussy. A bust of Shakespeare sat on the mantlepiece; a little fire was burning in the grate. It sounds ludicrously over-priviledged and quaint, but we were getting the absolute best of a humanistic education.

Tony Nuttall was immensely warm and charismatic: then about 60, he was still startlingly handsome. In the course of a term, we looked at a piece of Herbert and discussed the very wierd metaphysics involved in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (God doesn't judge you when you die for sins committed. The very fact that you sin during life shows that you will have been damned from eternity.) We looked at the hair-raising end of Doctor Faustus through a theological lens. We talked about Plato's theory of representation and its implications for Renaissance art. We learned about Anselm's clever but barking proof of God's existence. It was just amazing.

A recurring theme was the link between philosophy and literature, and this is at the heart of 'Shakespeare the Thinker'. I got about a hundred pages into the book (which is absolutely excellent) before deciding to google reviews.

It was with great dismay that I found that the first item I came across was an obituary. Nuttall had died suddenly in January, aged only 69. The act of reading new (to you) words by someone you have known who is now dead is very strange. I was unexpectedly stricken, though I'm sure he wouldn't have known me from Adam. As my friend Peter, who also attended those magical classes, said: 'He gave the impression of being both wise and good'. I am sure it was more than an impression. He will be very sadly missed.

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