I got the news earlier in the week that Christopher Nicholson had suffered a bad stroke. He was receiving care in Bedford Hospital. Visitors said he was very poorly and likely to be there for some time.
So much energy and drive immobilised. I can’t imagine it.
No more can I imagine anyone not knowing who Christopher Nicholson is.
Well, he taught English at my school.
Stories about how he taught at that most cynical of schools were abroad within a day or two of his arrival. There were rumours that he’d commandeered a complete set of school photos and set himself the task in his first week of learning all 2,000 names by heart so that he’d never see a child in the corridor he didn’t recognise. Then rumours turned into ripples as we discovered what ethos meant and that he had strong views about it.
Unlikely people started to take an independent interest in Heaney and Shakespeare. We knew before long that we had talent on our hands, a natural, a man to join Mr Chips and the late Dan Dickey in school folklore.
It’s twenty years since I last saw him, in the bar at the Randolph in Oxford. But he’s always the first person to come up in conversation when his old pupils get together for a greying pint. A Chris Nich story means you belong. For us, he was the school.
He was never my teacher. In seven years, he never took a class that had me in it. So it goes. I’ve never actually had the great teacher or the mentor. But something of his note plays on in me. The way he put a blue flashing light onto the roof of the arts so that the lesser traffic of life pulled over. His almost uncontrollable enthusiasm about being alive that would radiate out from him and into you.
Influence, and to some, inspiration. But next to him I could feel faded or watered down.
Inspiration has more meanings by the year. In sporting terms, what most people think of is the “inspirational manager”, a ranting individual who is, if British, more working class than thou, or, if foreign, better dressed but unshaven. He does his stuff at the interval. He doesn’t exist.
Loudness and the qualities of inspiration don’t have to go hand in hand. Some of my inspirations have been quiet people.
I met one of them at a bus stop in Brixton. It was 1991, I was new to London, and I’d got onto the wrong bus and then its brakes had failed. It finished in a front garden and I finished in a part of town regarded by outsiders like myself with fear.
I was trying to get a bus, any bus, out of Brixton, and drawing as little attention to myself as possible. An elderly West Indian lady put her hand on my sleeve and made a remark.
I didn’t catch it. I asked her to repeat it, and then couldn’t understand her accent. I’ve come to love that accent now as one of the most beautiful in English, but I was tired and scared and scatty and couldn’t make out her words. So I told her where I was trying to get to.
She pulled her weight up onto arthritic legs and tugged my sleeve. “Go on,” said a bloke further down the shelter. “She’s taking you.” I followed, for ten minutes, as she led me painfully through badly lit, uncleaned streets. We came eventually to another bus stop. As we arrived, a 137a pulled up: she chuckled, and gave me a gentle shove in its direction. I got on, and it pulled away. From my window, I saw her begin her progress back to her own stop from where, later, he own bus would take her to her home.
I’ve never been scared of Brixton again, or thought London cold or unfriendly, or failed to give directions to lost strangers.
Five years later, I found myself running a desk in a local history department in one of London’s larger public libraries. Anyone can come into those places, and anyone does: the scent of urine brings the memories flooding back. One old lady came in every week or so to photocopy what looked like random newspaper cuttings, paying for her copies with loose coppers. Leaning for support on a stick and an old shopping trolley, she’d stop in the doorway, give a beatific smile and nod towards the copier for assistance.
Genuine bearded women aren’t often seen, and when they are, they usually smell like that and move with that much discomfort. One day, I hope, arthritis will be as rare a sight as rickets.
The bearded lady was always delightful company however. One day I asked her what all the copying was for. “Oh,” she said, “It’s for my old people. I organise day trips for them; they don’t get out otherwise, many of them, and it gives them something to look forward to.”
I thought it was generous thought, but unlikely given her own evident struggles. I put it down to the delusions of the kindly elderly. Then came a day when I was out of the building for lunch, and came across the coach she and the driver were funnelling “her” people onto.
She was looking after others when those others perhaps should have been looking after her. She was the oldest and unfittest of them all. But then, some people admire political comedians, don’t they, or journalists.
The Berlin Wall had already fallen by the time I got to London, but then the Soviet Union took tent-folding lessons and the Russians started to arrive. They weren’t all rich, and they weren’t all crooked.
My Russian had been a university professor in the old days, but like so many of his type had found himself deemed unnecessary and now lived on air in a council flat somewhere in W10. “James!” he’d boom from within his beard, “My country! My country has beautiful laws! Your country has not so beautiful laws. But people obey them.”
He lived with his son, who was hot-knifing through the paltry syllabus of our law-abiding school system, and a series of recovering drug addicts. These he took on one at a time, with no reference to social services or authority of any kind. Given the job I did, I knew them all, had seen them decline. Then the big, noisy Russian bear would scoop them up off the street, take them home, fill them with soup and sort them out: they’d reappear pleasantly bewildered in a few months, clean, with colour in their cheeks, more often than not employed, back in the human race.
It struck me then, and strikes me now, that he saw nothing out of the ordinary in what he was doing. By the time he got to them, the addicts were at that repellant and unattractive stage (the yelling, thieving point-of-no-hygiene) but he never seemed to notice. How simply he decided that they needed help, that he’d give it to them: then the mysterious thing would take place and there they’d be, as if their trouble had never come upon them.
Rasputin’s good twin. People like him push you towards a kind of will to philanthropy, whilst making you feel perfectly impotent.
Not so my other inspiration. Peter Scupham, the poet, taught at the school of a friend of mine – he was a mentor to her for many years while she built her own artistic career, and through her I spent a couple of weekends at Scupham’s rangy manor house alongside the other guests, wastrels and strays. I remember a blur of energy and colour and noise and music and books and food and cats and ghosts. But it wasn’t because of him that I tried to write poetry: that ambition predated even Chris Nich. It’s not because of him that I want to rescue an old house one day, although that’s how he got his with its bent chimney and painted gallery. Nor have I stolen his idea in wanting to provide, one day, retreats for writers and artists, although that’s the use he put the manor to.
Nor did he give me his taste in music: he likes all the wrong 1920s dance bands. No, none of these things.
Chris Nich was never my teacher, and I’ve never had what I’d call a mentor, never a real guiding relationship. But time and time again I’ve seen what that kind of relationship can do, not just in terms of advice, but in introductions, in direction, in giving confidence and recognition. And if not a relationship, then the right word at the right time.
That right word has to be an honest one. The self-esteem movement lost sight of that twenty years ago. And genuine opportunities to give it are relatively few and far between. Peter Scupham was the first person I saw do it properly, and without any kind of side or grandeur or self-consciousness.
If there’s been any theme to my career at all, it’s been that of helping people find their track, or find their feet, whichever phrase you want to use. I plagiarised it from a poet, and, lacking the natural facility, I’ve just had to do my best with it. But in a world with so many more critics than cheerleaders, it’s a grand thing to have copied.
Plagiarising resigned shrinks: there are a lot of us around these days, aren’t there?