On 2nd August, one of the inspirational teachers of my life passed away. Peter Whitton will not be known to a wider public, and he always utterly played down the only public connection he had – the unlikely fact that he was the cousin of glam-rock star Alvin Stardust.
Before I knew him, Peter was a colleague and friend of my father at the Boys’ Grammar School that I later attended; Peter’s wife Ann was similarly a colleague of my mother at the town’s Girls’ Grammar School. I remember our calls to the Whittons’ rather chaotic ex-farmhouse as a very young boy while my both my mother and Ann were on maternity leave.
Later, Peter taught me Classical Studies and then ‘O’ Level Latin; having drained myself slogging through French grammar, I never really repeated the task with Latin, and was never one of his best pupils. But I remember his lessons with great fondness, not only for his academic rigour, but for his gentle humanity and willingness to treat his pupils as proto-adults who just happened to be discussing matters of great import. Despite his refined intellect, he was always extremely direct and down to earth, and not above sharing a smutty (but clever) joke or shaggy-dog story with us. We also admired the fact that he was utterly his own man, and a known maverick on the teaching staff.
He was born in East London in the early Thirties, and his experience of the War left him with pacifist sympathies for the rest of his life. He was deeply affected by human suffering, and one on occasion he drove my wife and me a considerable distance from his latter-day home in a remote part of the Limousin to see the only war memorial in France that commemorates conscientious objectors.
Peter was recommended for Cambridge but being from a poor home was not able to afford the social trappings required for entry in those days, and so went to London University. He moved to Somerset in the 1960s, where he made our family’s acquaintance.
He was a big man in every sense of the word; he appeared older than he evidently was to us boys on account of having lost his hair early – but he then seemed scarcely to age at all into his eighties. He was always a great Francophile, and I also owe my ability in French to the individual tutoring he gave me to ‘O’ Level – even though my dominant memory is gasping for air amidst the garlic fumes of his close presence…
When he moved to France he lived in what for a while were frankly primitive conditions in an old farmhouse near Limoges, and was in his element tending his allotment or chopping trees in his wood. He converted a barn into a workshop and was rarely happier than when turning out furniture.
We first visited him there in the scorching summer of 2003, and remember sitting for long hours over lunch in his garden. By then he was almost more French than the French; his face ruddy from rather too much pastis, he was totally integrated into the local community, his French fluent as a native’s and even his appearance in his habitual serge-de-Nimes dungarees only lacked a string of onions to make the picture complete. And yet he never appeared contrived; he was not enacting some middle-class Anglo-French dream. This was just the way he wanted to live. Equally, he had the knack of bringing in an armful of lettuce from his plot, tearing it up, flinging on oil and vinegar, bringing some paper-wrapped cheese from the depths of the ‘fridge – and producing an utterly delicious lunch.
We saw him again at my father’s home in Somerset; being a teacher’s son produces some rather surreal moments, such as this one, when as teacher myself I witnessed the reunion of several of may father’s colleagues, all my former teachers in our living room. Peter immediately fell into an in-depth discussion of Middle Eastern geo-politics with my old history teacher in a way I doubt many present-day teachers could even manage; such was the unassuming learnedness of such people.
We last visited Peter and Ann two summers ago, by which time Peter had fought off four bouts of cancer. He seemed general well, but his age was beginning to tell. He was still at the woodwork and wine, though.
Peter started (and remained) my father’s friend; he then became my teacher and tutor and ended up as my friend too. As so often it took the benefit of hindsight to appreciate his influence as a role-model, but this is something all my old school friends are agreed upon. With the passage of time, I also came to realise that he was one of the people upon whom I modelled my own teaching persona.
We often talked about teaching; he was distressed to hear what the British education system has become; his repeated response was simply, “But where’s the human touch?” I learned more from the likes of Peter about what it means to be a teacher, than any present-day corporate professional training session will ever even appreciate. And I think that is a fitting epitaph to a fine man.
Summer 2003, Murat, France.