Ann Wordsworth – a Tribute

I have recently been searching out friends and acquaintances from the past – searching out to either make contact or to see how they are getting on in their lives from what information I can find. Sometimes there has been a closeness that warrants contact; sometimes it is a genuine but distant interest in the pathway of their lives.

The interest is sparked by my own aging and thus nostalgia for years past. At times I have regretted having lost contact. In many cases I have wanted to get in touch and reminisce with those who had made an impact on my life, either by an occasional but memorable engagement or some more indelible meaningfulness.

Over recent years I have tried to find information on Ann Wordsworth who was my English tutor for a year at Oxford. Having been unsuccessful for some time, and perhaps not trying intelligently enough, I did recently and sadly find an obituary about her death in 2013, aged 80. That wasn’t then necessarily a surprise, and I couldn’t be angry with myself for not having succeeded: and perhaps most significantly, I will have been a minute part of Ann’s life and she will have had, I’m sure, the richest of engagements and memories with family and friends.

The obituary here brought back my fond memories, especially of my meetings at her house too where I would read essays aloud, essays so heavily influenced by her teaching, ideas and directions they will have been, at many times, direct and possibly embarrassing mirrors of her influence – though I hope she took pleasure too in that inspiration having taken such a hold.

I was actually studying for a B.Ed. at Westminster College, and having attained this after three years, one of the bonuses of being there was to be tutored by someone from one of the Oxford universities for the English totality of the degree, Ann Wordsworth then teaching at St Hugh’s College.

I was a mature student, having worked before study, and I don’t know if it was because of this or simply common, but we would always drink a glass of wine during our tutoring sessions. She was above all the most stimulating but also demanding teacher – stretching me to places I’m sure I never quite reached, and even to those that I did I cannot now understand their surrounds having lost the relative peak and intensity of the moments – but she was also most attentive to me as a person and the life I was living at the time: married and living and working on a farm for the first two years to pay for my study.

Always then and since a sceptic of the privilege of the Oxford and similar system/situation – the ‘town and gown’ of my actual experience living there for the final two of my four years studying, and, for example, a first teaching practice in an Emergency Priority Area school at Blackbird Leys as well as causal work as an industrial cleaner at the Cowley car plant – I nonetheless revelled in that privilege. The privilege of using the Bodleian Library to research the criticism Ann referenced and recommended; attending Oxford English faculty lectures, ranging from the likes of Stephen Spender to Terry Eagleton, and I would tend to the more radical as Ann herself was a radical thinker and teacher.

In this respect I was so lucky. I am sure many of the tutors there at that time, 1979, would have been far more traditional in their thinking and tutoring. Ann was steeped in Freudian theory and influence, Lacan especially, as well as structuralism and deconstruction, Derrida the critical theorist darling then. I was out of my depth with this, not least when Ann arranged for me to attend a lecture by Derrida where the select audience [I recall Maud Ellman being there] was clearly fully engaged in his talk, delivered entirely in French so that I didn’t understand a single word.

Authors that influenced most from Ann’s recommendations were Harold Bloom and Edward Said, the former an advocate of Ann Wordsworth’s work. I did use and apply much of what Ann had taught me in my early years of teaching, most obviously when my school acquired a sixth form and I thus taught A Level English Literature. I was still so heavily influenced in those early 80s teaching years that I wrote a poem about Derrida and submitted it to the Times Education Supplement. It was politely declined, and I’m not at all surprised, especially when I read now. I did also write to Ann occasionally then, sharing my continued enthusiasms [and that poem] but we eventually lost touch and, as I have been saying, it is in more recent years I tried to find out about her with the possibility of contacting again.

Being too late, I have written this tribute, and thank her all the same for that particularly and intensely challenging but enriching period of intellectual activity. As important was her friendship, that care and attention to me as a person when times were hard in certain respects, and her overall personal warmth when I will have been just one of many awestruck students.

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