RIP Roy Park
College deeply regrets to report the death of Dr Roy Park, Emeritus Fellow, who died on 17 July 2019 aged 83. During his time at Univ Dr Park was a Tutorial Fellow in English (1972-1996), but he was much involved in College life in other ways. He was Recorder from 1988-90 and Director of Undergraduate Studies from 1990-2, but above all he served as Fellow Librarian for over two decades, from 1974-96. During this time, in collaboration with our then Librarian, Christine Ritchie, Roy oversaw the transformation of the ground floor of the Old Library into a superb new reading room with librarian’s office. Our thoughts are with his family and friends in Oxford and elsewhere.
We are grateful to both Dr Park’s former colleague, Professor Helen Cooper, Honorary Fellow, and to Professor Peter McDonald – former student and now Tutor in Poetry in the English Language at Christ Church – for the following tributes.
Professor Helen Cooper
The four things that everyone remembers about Roy are the passion of his teaching, the floor-level chairs, the thick fug of pipe smoke, and his even thicker Glaswegian accent. Being merely a colleague, I never got the full force of the teaching; but since he could never hold himself back from sharing his passion for the nineteenth century, it would sometimes take over an admissions interview, and I could enjoy it as an eavesdropper. Being short, like Roy himself, I found the chairs (‘a bit like deckchairs made out of corduroy’) rather comfortable, though he changed the seating arrangements for interviewees the moment he realized that they didn’t mix well with short skirts. By the end of a full day’s interviewing, however, it was scarcely possible to see across the room, or to breathe.
Roy had taught in Cambridge before he moved to Oxford, though I never met him then. His pupils there included Clive James, Stephen Greenblatt and the politician Chris Smith (who named Roy as his Best Teacher in a TES series on the topic), all still ardent admirers. When I told Cambridge friends I had got the post at Univ, their eyes tended to widen with horror. I arrived expecting a fire-breathing Scottish dragon; but the dragon couldn’t have been kinder or more welcoming. It was years before I discovered that he had been against the admission of women – nothing antifeminist, just that he had built up remarkably successful all-male teams in previous years, and wasn’t sure how the new dynamic would work. He was delighted to discover that it still did, and if anything he was even more proud of his women undergraduates than the men. He himself came from a deprived background, and he worked intensively to encourage applicants from schools without any Oxford experience. Few tutors too remained unaware of the virtues of Scottish Highers after an encounter with him. What he was looking for, however, was a love of literature and the ability to think about it, and some of the top independent schools knew well that Univ was the best college to send their brightest pupils of English.
Roy had high standards for both workload and achievement, and an endless optimism about how his students would match up. He sent out a substantial reading list on Victorian literature to the incoming freshers, and then gave them a collection on it the moment they arrived. The questions would require the naming of x number of Victorian literary periodicals, or the name of the town where some particular novel was set. The results were invariably disastrous – he would send the results on to me, a string of gammas illuminated by the occasional beta – and year after year he would be genuinely astonished and disappointed. He told the story in some bewilderment of how when he asked one of the first intake of women, ‘What happened to your collection?’, she burst into tears. His practical solution was to invest in a box of Kleenex. The tutorials were something else: ‘Sometimes I’d leave a tutorial on one of the Victorians with him feeling like I’d discovered the meaning of life,’ as one of them wrote, and she was far from unique. By their second term, furthermore, they were discovering his deep soft-heartedness, and the awe with which they spoke of him was increasingly affectionate. To be one of Roy’s students was to be someone special.
Literature was his first passion – another student recollection: ‘It’s a compulsion! You should read it before dinner! During dinner! After dinner! In bed! In the bath! You should read it on the bog!’ – and he wanted his students to find it as inspirational as he did. Laziness (as distinct from difficulties, whether personal or academic) could incur the dragon’s wrath, though the victim’s indignation was generally tempered by the recognition that it was a fair cop. He was disturbed by the shift of academic emphasis towards research: his own speciality was Hazlitt, on whom he had written finely, but he believed deeply that teaching was what mattered. After that came climbing in the Scottish highlands, and his garden, especially the roses, which provided buttonholes for the year’s examinees. We got the full advantage of the garden as well as of Alice’s cooking at the memorable parties that they hosted at Charlbury Road. Outside college, Roy-and-Alice functioned as a single entity; it’s hard to imagine anything else, just as it’s hard to imagine a world without him.
Professor Peter McDonald
I was deeply saddened to hear of the death in Edinburgh of Roy Park, my Tutor at University College long ago, who taught me more than I knew. Hazlitt, yes, and the Romantics too: but much more than that. I like Chris Smith’s account of supervision encounters from Roy’s time at Cambridge (Roy had the job at Pembroke which I went on to hold myself for a few years, before I moved to Bristol):
“I will remember forever the impact that one particular piece of English teaching at Cambridge had on me. It was the start of my second year at Pembroke, and four of us were due to have a supervision from Roy Park, newly back from his sabbatical in America, and recently lauded for his book on Hazlitt. The subject was Wordsworth and Coleridge, and we had each produced an essay – probably competent but certainly pedestrian – which we proceeded to discuss for the first half hour or so. ‘Now let me tell you what Wordsworth and Coleridge and Romanticism were really about,’ said Roy; and for the next two and a half hours he talked us passionately and fiercely through the Romantic revolution. He crouched on his armchair. He pulled books from the shelves to find quotations. He conjured a new world of the power of the human imagination for us, the ability to discover the transcendent in the ordinary. He bubbled with enthusiasm. And we came out of his room walking on air.”
Chris Smith went on to become a cabinet minister, then Master of Pembroke. I went on to teach Wordsworth and Coleridge etc. for myself, but nowhere near as successfully as Roy (my students are as likely to leave the room stuck in the mud as walking on air). The list of Roy’s personal academic ‘alumni’ is too long to muster here, but it is a remarkable one. I owe him a lot: he plucked me out of Belfast when I was a very raw 17 year-old, with a head full of poems and no common sense (I still remember the interview: RP “So you’ve read Keats?” PMcD”Er, yes” RP “Well have you read the Ode on Melancholy” PMcD “I have, yes” RP “Ah but have you ever read the first draft of the opening?” [PMcD happens to be able to recite draft] RP “That’s all very well, but what does it mean?” PMcD “I’ve no idea” [RP snaps his book shut in inscrutable but definite triumph]) In the years that followed, his kindnesses to me were legion – but Roy never liked word of his possible kindness to get about (was that a Glasgow legacy, or a Cambridge one?).
As a tutor, he was simply superb: every assertion tested against the books (which were all there, many of them appreciating wildly on their knock-down prices), and nothing – absolutely nothing – going unchallenged. He was merciless in interrogation, and extravagant in demands (“How much Matthew Arnold prose should I read?” “What do you mean how much? It’s only Arnold”). Try getting away with that these days. Or indeed try getting away with smoking: the room was always filled with very intense, noxious cigar smoke, and I can’t think about Hazlitt or Keats, Coleridge or Lamb, aesthetics, Wordsworth, or Francis Jeffrey to this day without the whiff of that smoke mysteriously still in my nostrils. It was very good for me to have been taught by a Scot – at that stage, the English (and the Oxford English in particular) were too foreign for me. Like any good tutor he’s teaching me still, every time I write a fine-sounding critical sentence and hear Roy’s quick, bubble-puncturing, “What does THAT mean?” And when I can’t answer, that sentence goes straight in the bin. I wish I had been more worthy of Roy’s faith in me, but I’m grateful that, when it counted, he had that faith.
Professor Peter McDonald (1980, English), Christopher Tower Student and Tutor in Poetry in the English Language at Christ Church.