Brian Merrikin Hill: A Teacher Remembered by Richard Jones (1958-63)
In 1960, after I had been at Wennington for two years, I decided that I would become a poet. Brian had been reading to the Fourth Form from the work of the First World War poets and the power of the matter and the imagery and Brian's passionate and entirely knowledgeable delivery of it had communicated to me something of the limitless possibilities of poetry. Suddenly poetry was lifted away from the confines of the nursery rhyme, the archaic nature ballad, the doggerel on the walls of the boys' loos. For me a Pandora's Box had been opened.
For a few months I became a versifier of the horror of Flanders and the mud and blood of Ypres and I filled a small blue spelling exercise book with earnest, clumsy parodies. Fired by the onset of genius I thrust the book at Brian one night when he was on duty in the Boys' Wing. I watched him as he sat reading on the top stair, his arms drawn around his knees. No expression passed across his face; he puffed on his pipe and moved from one poem to the next, reading through to the end of the slim volume. After he read the last piece - a frightful homage to Rupert Brooke - he lowered the book and cocked his head on one side as if digesting what he had just read. "There is real merit in this, Richard," he said, "but a poet must always write of what he knows".
Bearing away these words of wisdom I proceeded to fill two ring-binders with adolescent meandering in free verse (by now Brian had introduced us to T S Eliot) pondering everything from the mysteries of an increasingly confusing universe to why a succession of long-haired girls with beautiful eyes failed to yield to my romantic overtures. All of this quarto and foolscap material I shared with Brian so that he might apprehend my growth in stature as a poet. And to all of it he responded with a seriousness of purpose, a gentle patience and a supportive criticism that had nothing to do with professional patronisation and everything to do with the sensitivity and insight of the great teacher. (Thirteen years ago, following a visit to the now-deserted Wennington, I submitted some poems to Brian's poetry magazine, Pennine Platform. Again, he gave me measured and supportive criticism, careful; to respect their creator's tender sensibilities but rigorous in recommending attention to structure and form).
I remember too, as do we all, his Sunday Assemblies that told us of worlds of wisdom and beauty beyond our distinctly earthly preoccupations. I remember the English lessons - Brian tilted back on his chair, his knees wedged against the table's edge, a book held loosely in one hand and that reedy but resonant voice giving us King Lear (and, with endearing vanity, his taking all of the parts), Louis MacNeice, Edwin Muir, Gerard Manley-Hopkins. And no, for all my vast pretensions, I understood little of what I heard then. But the mighty music of it all, the sense of being let in on truths and possibilities that might flow later, are what I recall now.
Brian made a poor headmaster. In an odd sense that is to his credit: he was unable to compromise the gentle anarchism, the churchless spirituality that was so much a part of him. Maybe he was unsure how to integrate that complex set of inner visions about nature and the human soul with the needs of a beleaguered school in a changing world. But for so many of us the phenomenon of a Wennington that survives in its scattered alumni over 25 years after its demise is due in no small measure to Brian Hill's place at its centre during our formative years.
I don't have Brian's breadth of knowledge or his spiritual integrity. Maybe I live too much in the 'real' world. But I feel passionately that we should mourn least at the passing of a politician and most at the passing of a teacher and a poet.
THEY MOURN IN WHITE
In India they mourn in white
and dress the dead in flowers. Music plays
and dancers lead the train. Bright days
commemorated, not that starless night
reflected in the weeds we wear
in church and cemetery. What
afterlife do we propose? Death's counterplot
as a long black prayer
in the dark for light to find us?
Immortality's true rewards
are not in the light we crawl towards
but in the light we leave behind us.