The following tribute to Eric was given by friend and former work colleague Don Bourne at a Thanksgiving Service on Thursday 29th August, 2002 at St. Mary’s Church, Saltford. We are very grateful to Don for his kindness in allowing us to reproduce it here for the benefit of a wider audience. Don was one of Eric’s many friends – for a total of 39 years – 21 of them as a colleague at Newton Park College, Bath.
It’s my sad privilege to have been asked by Sheila to talk for a few minutes about Eric, whose death we all mourn today, but whose life had a richness and quality which demand our highest praise and celebration. Wordsworth got it right when he wrote of the child being the father of the man, a truism particularly applicable to Eric whose early experiences explain much of what he achieved and became. So – the biography.
He was born in the West Sussex village of Henfield, under the northern lee of the South Downs, into a family which, according to Eric’s meticulous researches, had declined in fortune from substantial yeomanry in the 18th and 19th centuries. His father was a farm worker and tree feller in the decade, the 1920s, when agriculture was in one of its cyclical troughs. The family’s straightened circumstances were further exacerbated by a crippling accident to the breadwinner, which permanently incapacitated him. Despite such setbacks Eric had three crucial advantages – brains, a strong, capable and highly intelligent mother, and excellent schools close at hand.
A precocious pupil, he passed the scholarship, as we called it in those days, in the village school at the age of 10, and moved on to nearby Steyning Grammar School, then under the head mastership of the excellent John Scragg (a splendidly Dickensian name for a schoolmaster, if I have ever heard one!) But increasing financial constraints forced Eric to leave school in its Lower VI to find work in the Electricity Showroom in Brighton in order to ease the family’s predicament.
He remained there from 1937 until his call-up in the war, not into the Royal Army Medical Corps as he had hoped, but into the Auxiliary Fire Service. He served both in England and later in a special unit attached to a regiment stationed near Virton in newly liberated France. This was in 1944/5. During this period he became interested in socialism, a political creed he embraced throughout his life – although somewhat disenchanted with its current manifestations! When he was demobbed, through his Labour Party connections he obtained a place at Ruskin College, Oxford where he crammed an enormous amount of study into one year before winning a scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge to read Psychology and Moral Philosophy. The Further Education and Training Scheme introduced by the 1945 Labour Government rewarded his faith in left- wing social justice and financed his studies, as it did for thousands of returning servicemen and women. And so for this latter-day Jude the Obscure the gates not of Christminster but of Christ’s Cambridge opened to let him in!
He later acknowledged that a conscious vocation for teaching led him to try to repay this gift of education. His first post after graduation was a two-year stint as a travelling W.E.A. tutor in Cumbria, based in Carlisle – not a bad lot for the country boy! From there he moved as a class teacher to a primary school in Loughton, Essex. He was there for five years during which time he studied for his Postgraduate Certificate of Education at the London Institute. A two-year appointment followed, as deputy headteacher in Stevenage New Town before he gained his headship in Fareham.
Armed with this formidable body of experience at the chalk face, Eric in 1963 took up a lectureship in the Education Department at the City of Bath Teacher Training College, Newton Park, now known more exotically as Bath Spa University College. He remained there until his retirement in 1984
During his school teaching years, Eric met, wooed and married Sheila, a lady equipped with her own distinguished talents as a music teacher and performer on piano and cello – and a perfect foil to Eric’s mercurial temperament. Eric’s pride and delight in her and their two daughters, Janet and Julia, were always evident to his friends – as well as the pleasure he felt in the additions to the family in his sons-in-law and the four grandchildren, Nicole, Richard, Hannah and Caity.
Eric was popular with everyone at Newton Park, staff and students alike – a genuine character indeed, who will long be remembered and reminisced about whenever old students meet. He was instantly recognisable as a countryman – the open, rubicund, indeed cherubic countenance with its ready smile accompanied by an endearing chuckle; clearly a man incapable of guile or cynicism; of a generous and comforting build with which his clothes made a mutually satisfying accommodation – and all crowned with the bloved cap!
A central strength of Eric’s character was his strong but discriminating loyalty and commitment to any institution or movement he joined. In lecture and seminar he taught with enthusiasm, indeed passion, drawing on his practical experience and the rich resources of his omnivorous reading – indeed the learned digressions sometimes took the whole of the– with scant reference to the lecture clock!
Omnivorous reading indeed! The extent of Eric’s personal library is legendary. Books fill every corner of his and Sheila’s home, and when at Newton Park there were satellite outposts of his collection filling his study, the boot of his car – even his capacious pockets. And he knew much of the contents of his books and not merely the covers. His instant recall seemed strong and accurate – a powerful teaching tool and invaluable in argument. He made a specialist collection of, appropriately, British Humour which is kept under his name in the University of Kent. His contribution in print to the collection is an anthology of humour entitled ‘Laughter in a Damp Climate’ – edited Linfield and Larsen.
In other aspects of his professional duties, Eric was always caring and accessible in his pastoral concerns, and a reassuring and encouraging presence to the fledgling teacher in the classroom.
His 21 years at the College covered a period of continual change and flux, of expansion, amalgamation, a movement from the award of certificates to honours degrees and at least three changes of validating bodies. Eric never shirked the responsibility of taking an active part in the decision-making process in Academic Board and Assembly – involved, supportive, critical when he felt it necessary.
But an academic community is not only about teaching, research and administration, and Eric was always at the heart of the fun, whether at a Senior Common Room party, or dancing veiled as the King of Egypt’s daughter in the Christmas Mummers’ play – or, the imagination quails here – as a grass-skirted maiden in the Music Department’s production of South Pacific! Good memories indeed! Music was a great pleasure for him whether in Church or concert hall and again his tastes were enriched by his marriage to a music-maker.
“In my beginning is my end”. Eric’s life began in a village and he dwelt for the last 40 years in a village, albeit very different from the Henfield of the 1920s. The core institutions of your village are Church, School, Parish Hall or Community Centre, pub and shop. Eric was a committed Anglican, but his spiritual quest led him to explore other means of insight as this combined service with the Society of Friends so eloquently reflects. And how he would have relished Bel Mooney’s current radio series, The Devout Sceptic.
The Parish Hall and Parish Council as social focus and centre of local democracy demanded Eric’s full involvement as his many Saltford friends here today will testify. His vigorous participation in local history projects, campaigns to protect the immediate Green Belt and other wider environmental concerns have received much acclaim and press coverage recently centring on his well-deserved award of the rarely conferred Countryside Medal of the C.P.R.E. made to him just before his death – and I can vouch for his campaigning zeal. Two or three years ago, I received his and Sheila’s customary Christmas card and written below the seasonal good wishes was the stern injunction “We must all plant more trees next year!” I applauded the sentiment, but am afraid that I’ve been a bit of a back-slider in that respect.
Finally, the village pub, dear to Eric as quintessentially part of the English countryside culture. His researches into the subject for the benefit of friends were extensive and selfless, to ascertain the quality of the ale and the absence of musak. He enjoyed nothing better than a meeting of friends in an inn where, among the gossip and banter – some of it rather noisy I fear – the big questions were discussed – from black holes and the Big Bang, the sources of morality and how to educate President Bush. If all that sounds a bit pretentious, Eric being there, cheerfulness would constantly break out and he would reminisce about characters he had known such as Jack Ashley, a fellow student at Ruskin, or how he taught the present Foreign Secretary as a child at Loughton Primary. We were even allowed to inspect the relevant mark book – but that is another story.
Today we shed a tear for this loveable, talented man who gave of himself so generously to people and causes, but we shall always smile and remember in future days when we think of Eric. May he rest quietly.