KENNETH WALLER – A MEMOIR
by Jonathan Lewis
I used to visit Ken, not as often as I would have wished but when I could, in what had been his parents’ home in Kensal Rise. Ken was born there, and lived there all of his life. Every inch of wall space was eclipsed by bookshelves staggering under the weight of his huge library.
Ken’s mobility was restricted, so I would reach up for the volume of the moment – a text or a dictionary. We just sat and talked. I doubt that I have ever had more wide ranging conversations with anyone. Linguistics and philology. Literature. The astronomy and natural history programmes on television, which he enjoyed. My work. The genealogy which we had both undertaken – I researching Eastern Europe in the 19th century, Ken English churchyards and parish records going back centuries. Ken’s beloved Welsh language. The hours flew by.
As we talked the years and the cares of the world somehow fell away. It was as if I were transported back half a century. One wintry afternoon even the small fire in the corner of Ken’s upstairs sitting room was somehow redolent of the welcoming atmosphere of the stoves in those miserable wooden huts at the end of the school field. I was once again the pupil, sitting at the feet of my teacher.
We spoke a lot about religion. Ken’s religiosity was intensely intellectual. He had, for example, an inspired interpretation of the narrative of the Resurrection. In the past he had arranged to attend some Synagogue services. He loved the cadences of the Psalms in the King James Bible. We read some of the Psalms together in Hebrew. This was yet another language which Ken had tackled, but even for him – the master of languages – the complex grammar of biblical Hebrew had proved daunting.
As we spoke about Judaism, I gradually realised that, for Ken, our roles had reversed. Now Ken saw himself as the student sitting at my feet. He asked me about the Talmud, a massive post biblical corpus of Jewish learning which demands intense study. I brought him one volume in translation, and when I came next he accepted that it had defeated him. I brought him other books on Judaism which he devoured, including one, by a judge of the Supreme Court in Israel, on the Trial and Death of Jesus, which I think that he read twice.
Ken spoke a lot of what I came to think of as his three families.
His own family. Most especially his nephew Steve and his wife Mary, who did so much for him.
His extended family. I think that he saw his former pupils as an extended family. He was always enthusiastic to hear about them. I would bring him greetings from some whom I am in touch with, and he would always ask me to convey a personalised greeting.
And his virtual family – Stori Rhys. Henrietta, Kenelm, Mali, Rhys. I had to tell him that, for my taste, his characters were too self-absorbed. They reminded me of the endless self-analysis and self-doubt of some of the characters in the later books in C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novels. I knew that Ken would not have wanted me to dissemble. But I told him too that I recognised the literary skill and the emotional sensitivity with which he wrote. Ken’s days must have been long, often lonely and sometimes uncomfortable. He eased them by creating a virtual world of characters into whom he breathed life and amongst whom, emotionally, he lived.
The intellectual treat of our conversation absorbed my consciousness. But sometimes I found my subconscious drifting back, to memories ….
….Form 1B in 1957. Ken’s first year at HCS, and mine. One of Ken’s first year Latin tests, in which I was disappointed to get only 99% because I could not remember the word “equus”.
….The intellectual diversity of lessons. Ken always covered the syllabus, but he refused to be constrained by it. He would take some current issue of the moment, and invite us to consider how it would have been described by Greeks or Romans. He would analyse the etymology of our names, and convey them into Greek or Latin. He was intrigued to be, in Latin, murator – for those, like most of us, whose Latin is receding, a “wall-er”. He recognised that as a teacher he could not have survived in today’s climate of conformity.
…. His commitment. I was in the scout group – the 4th Harrow – and, ever anxious to achieve another badge, aspired to an interpreter badge in Latin – truly! Ken gave me lessons in conversational Latin, and examined me for the badge. The opportunities, like this, that were open to us at HCS. For me another was that, when I decided to teach myself Italian in the Lower VIth, one of the modern languages teachers – Mr Boyce, if I remember – who knew Italian gave up one of his lunchtimes every week to help me to achieve a GCE. So, when I was privileged to be selected as one of the forty scouts of the Middlesex County contingent – remember Middlesex? – to the World Scout Jamboree in Marathon in 1964, my uniform proudly proclaimed not only “Parle Francais” but “Parla Italiano” and “Latine Loquitur”.
…. David Finch. David was a gifted classicist, and my friend. He was fair haired and slight of stature. He would speak whimsically of becoming the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. I am sure that he would have stood a chance – as would Ken, too, if he had had that opportunity.
In, I think, the Lower VIth form David went into hospital for an operation. Tragically he died. That Friday evening Ken arrived unannounced at our home at around 9 o’clock. He had just come from the hospital. He never drove, so he must have taken two buses and walked. Still in his own distress, he came to bring these tidings, and such comfort as he could, to a fifteen year old boy who was but one of his pupils. Bernard Marchant came the following afternoon. They differed in so many ways, except for the ones that mattered – dedication to their pupils, and academic rigour. I still remember Ken’s tears at assembly when the Headmaster told the school about David’s death, and at David’s funeral. Ken mourned David as, later, he was to mourn Gary Findon.
…. Cambridge. In those days a classical Greek play was performed in the original at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge, and Ken took us to see it. As we waited on a cold platform for the train home he asked us all if we were hungry and if he could buy us something to eat from the station buffet. Later, when I was a student at Cambridge, he came to spend a day with me. We lunched at the Union, and spent the day visiting colleges and talking.
…. In 2007 a group of Ken’s pupils came together to host a tribute dinner to mark the half century of the start of his teaching career at HCS. It touched him deeply, and he said so, in well chosen words. The group photograph of that evening hung on his wall.
We talked on and on, that same wintry afternoon. I was sitting by the window as dusk drew in. The unwelcome thought struck me that perhaps this was a metaphor for Ken’s life. So, sadly, it has proved to be.
Each of us has our own unique and irreplaceable memories of Ken. These are some of mine. Somebody – I wish that I could remember who – wrote that education is what remains after you have forgotten everything that you ever learned. The values which Ken inculcated into his pupils were, in that way, our education. In the words of Dr Watson’s final, as he thought, tribute to Sherlock Holmes, I shall ever regard Ken as amongst the best and the wisest men whom I have ever known.
My prayer is that which in Judaism we say when somebody passes away. May the soul of Kenneth Charles Waller be bound up in the bond of eternal life, and may his memory be for a blessing.
More tributes to Mr. Kenneth Waller
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