A Tribute To Philip Le Brun RIP
Philip Le Brun (Joes 1946/1953) died on 11th December 1990. He was the son of the famous Gustave (Panker) Le Brun but outshone his father as teacher and intellectual. From Joe's, Phil went up to Liverpool University where he took a First in English. He went on to Wadham College, Oxford to do an M. Litt. Later, he worked as a Senior Lecturer for some years at Fircroft College, Selly Oak, Birmingham and also as an Open University lecturer before going to Bishop Otter College Chichester (part of West Sussex Institute of Higher Education before becoming known as University College, Chichester.)
These are the tributes paid by those who knew him.
I would like to say a few things about Phil: essentially that he was a complete person, and because of that was able to be a great teacher and a great friend. Please forgive me for what I leave out: there is so much that all of us would wish to be said. It would probably surprise him to see that he was so important to us, he was not egotistical or ambitious, and so it is up to us to praise him, because he never praised himself.
Phil was a complete person: that is to say he was the same throughout: he didn’t have a teaching personality and a private personality, or a special voice for answering the phone. His only special voice, nasal, like Popeye’s was for saying something sarky but to let you know you weren’t to take it seriously. It was always the same Phil, wherever you were and whatever you were doing. In the same way his concerns were constant: what he wanted was to consider life, society, literary works, music, news, television, rolling ideas round his head to get the taste of them, arguing, discussing and trying to find explanations. In another age he might have been a philosopher or a contemplative: any vocation which requires the whole of consciousness, which you don’t take off like an overall to live a different life after hours.
So as far as I can see, being taught by Phil was like a continuous discussion with a friend, whereas if you were a friend you were constantly being taught – tangentially, by a process of osmosis, and not in the least didactically.
At the heart of his work as a teacher was the most vivid mental life: he had a lovely, subtle mind.
So the characteristic snapshot would be of a long lean figure with wiry hair and a beard, sitting in an arm-chair, somewhat bent to a book, piles of books on the floor, and shelves of books near at hand. At his side there is a table with more books, paper and pen, and a glass. He is smoking a pipe, or cleaning it, or filling it, or rapidly getting through a large box of matches. Or if he isn’t smoking, his long fingers are straying around his beard. From time to time a short appreciative cry – almost a squeak – comes from his lips. Nothing much appears to be happening, but a great deal is going on.
If this snapshot is comfortable and comforting, then that also describes the nature of Phil’s friendship. He was always there if you needed him.
The fact that he had a vivid mental life didn’t mean a lack of physical life: at Oxford he went weight-lifting in a gym every week, and had a dauntingly muscular torso. He played cricket for years; later he ran round the roads and fields regularly, and though an arthritic toe forced him to give that up, he continued to do a long walk every week. He always loved sport, read the sports pages, and watched every kind of event on television. I must not forget driving: he drove with panache and had great enjoyment from his Sunbeam Alpine and his TR7.
Of course, being so preoccupied by the mental life he was not very practical. In fact it went further – inanimate objects actually conspired against him. Once, for instance, we were visiting the room of a girl (rather a prig) who had just got a university lectureship – Phil had applied for many of these with no success, though often interviewed. Perhaps incensed at the bad thoughts we were undoubtedly having, an apparently stable eight foot bookcase leapt away from the wall and hurled its contents at Phil. He looked like Alice attacked by the cards. On another occasion of mounting suppressed hysteria when he was trying to leave a bizarre tea-party the door handle he was grasping flew across the room and ricocheted off the facing walls. For several minutes, once safely outside the front door, he was laughing so hard that he had to hold onto the gate-post to stay upright.
He was somewhat indifferent to physical environment, too, especially in early years. At Oxford he had a famous pair of trousers which through age and use had developed the colour and patina of bronze. This indifference to clothes was gradually dispelled over the years: it is true that it was women who took him by the hand, like Beatrice leading Dante, teaching him the refinements of physical life (oddly enough, except for cooking, which he taught himself and was meticulously good at).
So it eventually seemed quite logical that after teaching Chris, and being rather taken by what he found, he should take her out to dinner, then live in parallel, and finally together with her, Coralie and Adam, here and in the States – Philip Le Brun, the married man we never thought to see. And whatever ups and downs domestic life may necessarily entail, how rich and warm that was, how very happy he was in these last years, much happier than ever before. Dear Phil and Chris, in tune with one another on every frequency, and how we have all benefited from that harmony.
The period of his marriage did confirm him in everything he had been before, but with so much more security; it had a richer more expansive feeling. He wrote some poetry again after many years. The projected critical books did not get written: maybe they were never, quite, his central concern – just something he felt he ought to do. He gave a lot of thought to his relationship with Coralie and Adam – if things had occasionally been stormy he now found them rewarding, and he was feeling his way into the next phase.
What was amazing about the last months was Phil’s strength and courage: in the time I spent with him I did not once hear him complain: he bore it with something much more generous than stoicism. He went on, being consistently himself to the very end.
So our Phil was wise and scholarly, sometimes perplexed, often very funny, always open minded and tolerant.
It isn’t fashionable to honour teachers but the proud fact about teachers is that they don’t hold on to it: they give it all away.
Phil was quintessentially a teacher; he certainly taught hundreds of people – maybe thousands – I hope it was thousands who had something of what we had in friendship, and the hope that also gives of a kinder, more tolerant world.
If you would like to add your tribute, please email me at email@example.com
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