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Off The Shelf Of The Year

The best bit about owning this column is that amid all the arid pages of educanto you occasionally meet a fascinating person. Let me remind you of just three of the ones who have appeared in Off the Shelf this year.

There was the composer Marin Marais, for example, described in Creativity and Disease by Philip Sandblom (Marion Boyars Pounds 13.95) who wrote a piece for viola da gamba describing his pre-anaesthesia operation for bladder stone. Mostly, though, I recall two other casualties of violence - the unnamed Belfast girl whose role in life was to be a "sandbag", lying on the parcel shelf of stolen cars in order to put soldiers off their aim. (described in Fast Moving Currents in Youth Culture edited by Leslie F Francis, William Kay, Alan Kerbey and Olaf Fogwill, Lion Pounds 10). And Louis Stokes, killed on the Western Front in 1916, remembered in A Dear and Noble Boy by R A Barlow and H V Bowen (Leo Cooper Pounds 15.95). Was he just sparing the feelings of his family when he wrote, two months before his death, "It really is frightfully funny to walk solemnly along through a foot of muddy water"?

This month, therefore, to finish the year, here are three more memorable people, one a distinguished headmaster and scholar, one a seminal social activist and thinker, one a Victorian working-class radical.

John Dancy's biography of the late Walter Oakeshott - High Master of St Paul's, Headmaster of Winchester, Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University (Walter Oakeshott: a Diversity of Gifts, Michael Rusell Pounds 24) - trots along painlessly enough for half its length: the career progresses, personal historical interests are pursued. Then, quite suddenly, there comes the fascinating tale of the sacked housemaster.

The full story, it seems, cannot be told until papers are released in 2016, but according to John Dancy, it began when, late in 1953, a Winchester housemaster expelled a boy for alleged sexual misconduct. It was a hasty act, done on hearsay evidence, and Oakeshott, already dissatisfied with the housemaster, reacted by removing the man from his house. A discreet row followed, until the head was supported by the Warden and Fellows and the housemaster left the school. What is perhaps most remarkable is the way that Oakeshott handled the affair. He chose to tackle the housemaster, for example, by calling in not the man himself but his wife and telling her (without once meeting her eyes) that "he wanted Robin to leave his house immediately." As Dancy has it, "He had . . . made all the mistakes of a man who dreads a move that is bound to cause pain . . . after months, perhaps years of shivering on the brink, he had shut his eyes and jumped."

It is a sorry tale that deserves to take its place as a case study on heads' management courses.

Young at Eighty (edited by Geoff Dench, Tony Flower and Kate Gavron, Carcanet Pounds 18) an 80th birthday tribute to Michael Young, contains, alas, no salacious tales. For my generation, Young, since 1953 director of the modestly named Institute of Community Studies, is best known as author of The Rise of the Meritocracy.

It appeared in 1958, and by the following year was established as an examination question in every teacher training college in the land. Since then, as is well attested to by the many great and good friends who have contributed to this volume, Young has gone on to become one of the social thinkers and innovators of the century. And such is the fulsomeness of the tributes here given, I would not be surprised to learn that he is also an accomplished kick boxer, white water rafter and restorer of classic motorcycles.

Like Michael Young, Eli Hamshire, the subject of David Stemp's Three Acres and a Cow (published by the author at 27 Netley Close, Cheam SM3 8DN Pounds 12.50) had a clear vision of a better world. Born on Christmas Day 1934, the seventh son of a farm labourer, he grew up with an acute awareness of the social injustices of his times and kept up a stream of pamphlets and books which he sent to anyone who was anybody. "We read in our papers daily," he wrote once, "of young women concealing the birth of their infants. They are liable to be hanged or sent to prison. Now where are the fathers of such children? Why should they go scot free?" David Stemp, a support teacher in Carshalton is Eli's great great grandson, and this volume of biography and excerpts from Eli's own writings is a product of pride and affection.

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