Lancaster University

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Gordon Inkster - Obituary by Dick Geary

08/01/2001 12:39:34

Gordon Inkster was one of Lancaster's great characters and a much loved man. Gordon knew everyone and everyone knew him: from British Foreign Ministers, Vice Chancellors and academics of international renown to the residents of the Hala estate and the locals of Lancaster pubs, where he excelled in the local Quiz League for many years. Gordon had no time for pretensions of status, offered friendship to people from all walks of life and will be sorely missed by many, not only in the University community. His friends at Lancaster University included people of the most differing politics and personalities, some of whom spoke only to Gordon and not to one another. His untimely death, at home in Lancaster late on 18th July 2001, occasioned primarily by the asthma, which had ironically plagued his life since he gave up smoking in the 1980s, marks the end of an era.

Gordon Alexander Inkster was born in Leith on 21st January 1944; and his Scottish roots remained hugely important to him, as he performed on Burns Night for generations of Lancaster students and colleagues. Yet his was no narrow or exclusive nationalism. Gordon was a true cosmopolitan, embracing the most varied peoples, places and cultures. Late in his too short life, for example, he began to learn Mandarin Chinese. In 1956 Gordon became a star pupil at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, a school of star pupils, and was awarded the Grierson Bursary in Modern Languages to study at Edinburgh University from 1962. Four years later he received an MA with First Class Honours in French and Russian; and only recently his continued ability to speak Russian fluently amazed many of his colleagues, who knew only too well of his effortless mastery of the French language but had not hitherto encountered his other linguistic talents. Gordon's first extensive encounter with France came in 1964/65 as an English Language Assistant at the Lycée Jules Ferry in Cannes. (The choice of place can scarcely have been an accident.) From 1966 onwards his knowledge and love of France were enhanced by research on late nineteenth-century French art, artists and art criticism in Paris. His enthusiasm for the subject never dimmed; and he continued to give wonderfully entertaining lectures on The Nude in French Painting ('a dirty job, but someone's got to do it') until his last days in Lancaster. Whilst in Paris Gordon also participated in the student upheavals of 1968 and assembled a remarkable collection of the posters, fly-sheets and pamphlets from those days of hope. That collection can now be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

In 1969 Gordon was appointed to the Department of French Studies at Lancaster and began a career of inestimable value to his students and colleagues. He was an inspired and inspiring teacher, whose lectures on Proust were unmissable. He sustained the French 'year-abroad scheme', often a poisoned chalice, over many years and in a variety of arcane ways; whilst the pastoral care he lavished on his students was unrivalled - and not only in the French Department; for Gordon also came to play a major role in the life of County College over the years. No student problem, real or imagined, was ever too much for him to address. Characteristically, in fact, Gordon devoted far more time to the problems of others than he did to himself.

Apart from his teaching duties in French, Gordon displayed a healthy interest in all aspects of university life. (Such was common in those optimistic times, when we thought we could make a better future.) This led him to contribute a regular item (Inkblots) to the staff-student magazine (Lancaster Comment), which, for all that it was a gossip column, already displayed an amazing talent to sniff out information and embarrass the university authorities. These talents Gordon subsequently brought to Inkytext, an internet journal, in which he invested increasingly large amounts of time and energy, often working into the early hours. Inkytext was testimony to Gordon's weakness for gossip. But he characteristically turned this weakness to valuable public use. For Inkytext was not only the route, whereby many Lancaster academics found out was going on in Lancaster (in terms of food and wine, and personalities, as well as university politics). It also became the conscience of the University. Gordon's journalism was based not only on meticulous research (he was mortified, if he ever got a fact wrong) but also on a commitment to those ideals of honesty and integrity, which are the keystones of a true university. Though he sometimes - and somewhat irritatingly - managed to persuade himself that Inkytext was the New York Times, his writing did reflect the same values of integrity and commitment to principle as that best of English-language newspapers. And in defence of principle Gordon would speak out to or against anyone, the powerful as well as the weak. He rejoiced in being a thorn in the side of secrecy.

Gordon was devoid of envy (except when it came to one's ability to acquire first-growth clarets), jealousy or malice. In fact he rejoiced in the achievements of others, of his friends (for example, Michael Osborne, now Vice Chancellor of Latrobe University) and especially of his family. Gordon married Maggie Bristow, a former student of French at Lancaster, on 3rd August 1974. This long-suffering spouse, who somehow managed to cope with both his nocturnal trysts with the computer and his usual insouciance as far as his personal appearance was concerned, bore him two daughters, Catherine (born 27th November 1978) and Clare (13th May 1980), who now continue the academic achievements of the family at the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham respectively. Gordon was not only devoted to his family, however, but was also a good and loyal friend to countless individuals, irrespective of origin or social class. He visited them when well or when ill in hospital, often travelling great distances to do so (and often getting lost), reading up on their illnesses in encyclopaedic detail and identifying with their pains. He showed and inspired affection. His concern for others was never more evident than when (with Francesca - Ralph's wife) he cared for his close friend Ralph Gibson during his last, cancer-ridden days and when he meticulously and lovingly organised Ralph's funeral in the same Chaplaincy Centre, where he too was to be buried almost six years later.

Gordon was a polymath. He could and would discuss anything (wine, theology, postmodern arrogance or Celtic traditions) in his measured, rational - infuriatingly rational - way deep into the night. Moreover he was way ahead of his colleagues in the Humanities in one particular respect: he was a technophiliac, addicted to computers and the revolution in communications. At a time when most of us in the Humanities were still using quill pens, Gordon became a computer wizz-kid (entirely self-taught). He made PCs do the most extraordinary things, some useful, others less so. Whether his skills were always put to the best use is a matter of debate. For example, if in 1985 one had gone to Lancaster University's website, clicked on Modern Languages, then on German Studies and then on the name Professor R J Geary (despite the fact that Dick Geary had departed Lancaster in 1989), one would have discovered - thanks to Gordon - Dick's wedding photos!

Gordon Inkster was an extremely intelligent and wonderfully witty man, with a penchant for gloomy predictions, which made Cassandra appear optimistic. He could also be obstinate and infuriating. He often told medical doctors what they ought to know about medicine and lawyers what they ought to know about the law. But he never did this - or anything else - for personal advantage. Indeed the pity is that he didn't take greater care of himself, despite the care, concerns and entreaties of his friends and especially of his family. Gordon was there for others; and life will be the poorer without him.

Dick Geary July 26th 2001