So now: the human heart.
One of the finest intellectual and social experiments of my life was when I went up to read German, way back in the day, at Bristol University. I was a wide-eyed Swansea girl – all too plain and noticeably brunette against the ponytailed young blonde goddesses who strode along Woodland Road, chased by young men inevitably called Toby. I also wore a lot of tie-dye. So it was an intimidating experience at first, particularly when one friendly girl in halls – with a foghorn voice that would give Celia Johnson a run for her vowels and a physique on her that assured me that I would prefer a climb in the Andes over a hockey match with her – confessed one evening that she couldn’t understand me very well. I can’t remember if it was that night or the night after that my accent began to accommodate. Whatever, the unsuccessful result is that when I go home to Wales I am considered English and when in England I am considered Welsh… And wherever I am, I don’t know what accent I do have, exactly. But I made some terrific friends at Bristol, across the social spectrum. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
And I was fortunate to have entered an academic department that was simply fantastic. I’ve never forgotten the great tutors I had during those formative years, who genuinely helped to shape my ambition and my values, and who made it very clear to me that you didn’t require a fee-paid secondary education to excel with them. Among these was an academic, Professor Frank Shaw. Frank was one of the two people who ignited an improbable and lasting passion for Medieval Literature in me. He was a kind and generous man, and one who combined an outstanding erudition with patient compassion for the lesser mortals that passed through his dedicated life, such as myself. He encouraged me greatly, once taking me aside to tell me I should go on to study in the field following a paper I had given. As an insecure young woman back then, it felt like permission. And, of course, it was. I set my mind to it.
I did go on to study in the field, but I never did become the academic of his example. I found, as we do in life, that I had wanted something different after all. And, it seems, I may have found it. But I never forgot his influence. He occurred to me especially this evening, and I thought that I might drop him a line, on a sentimental whim. Not sentimental after all, it turns out – but too long overdue. For I found that he had unexpectedly passed away in the spring. He was a true Mensch. I owe him a lot. We’ll settle the balance, I hope, in the great hereafter, over a glass of wine and the Nibelungenlied.