Graceful turns of fine phrase

20th December 1996 at 00:00
Brian Alderson remembers Edward Blishen, the teacher turned literary journalist

The word that comes to mind is grace.

To the casual observer Edward Blishen's career as a literary journalist looks like a ramshackle affair. The foundation was laid with great panache when, in 1955, he published Roaring Boys, his funny and keenly observant account of teaching in a secondary modern school just off the Holloway Road in London.

The book's success took Blishen out of teaching and into freelance writing - a career so varied that no summary can fit into a tiny obituary. He was, for instance, a natural speaker, lecturing with an assured skill - minimal notes and lucid arguments - and this quality must surely have figured in his two years as a part-time lecturer for Harry Ree at York University, where he ran a course on "the teacher and the child in literature".

His gift for clarity fitted him well for broadcasting and perhaps the axis of his career is to be found in the near-40 years that he spent as presenter for the BBC's World Service where his programme, A World of Books, displayed his constant exhilaration in simply talking about literature. It was here too that his work for the African Service's Writer's Club inspired him to an affectionate concern for the progress of African literature.

At the same time, he wrote. There was a series of books which carried the fictionalised autobiographic technique of Roaring Boys into a patchwork of reminiscences where the people and places of Blishen's life were disguised with an almost frivolous transparency. There were editorial jobs by the score, ranging from an encyclopedia of education to the Junior Pears Cyclopaedia (which may have presented some problems for a self-confessed mathematical defective).

Much of this not-so-occasional writing was done for children or for those concerned with children's reading. The refashioning of Greek myths in The God Beneath the Sea, which he undertook with his dear friend Leon Garfield, who died earlier this year, won the Carnegie Medal for 1970 and was followed by The Golden Shadow (1973).

Blishen edited anthologies, such as the recently reissued Oxford Book of Poetry for Children; he edited for six years Oxford's high-class annual Miscellany for Children; he garnered that fine collection of essays and reflections by writers for children, The Thorny Paradise (1975); and of late he had worked with his wife Nancy on some admirable "treasuries".

It is indeed a ramifying life's work - but from the very start it has been characterised by grace; grace in expression (he was a master of the exact but unexpected adjective) and grace in his wonderfully courteous intelligence.

He loved to tell the story of a venerated schoolmaster whom he encountered while a pupil at Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet: "An Irishman appointed to teach mathematics on the grounds that he was an international lawn tennis player". That man brought the young Edward into his debt by revealing to him the open conspiracy of literature, and one senses that the whole of his working life was a sustained and gracious attempt to emulate that most teacherly of virtues.

Edward Blishen was born in Barnet, north London, on April 29, 1920 and died on December 13, aged 76. His last article for The TES, a characteristically wry and funny piece on the school where he taught, appeared on October 25. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, and his two sons.

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