Obituary - Alan Myers - 1933-2010

8th October 2010 at 01:00

Although better known in later life as an acclaimed translator of Russian literature into English, Alan Myers spent much of his career as a teacher.

He spent the years between 1963 and 1986 teaching Russian, English and social studies at Letchworth Grammar School in Hertfordshire, which later changed its named to Fearnhill when it became a comprehensive in the mid-1970s.

He was also in charge of the school library and acquired such a vast general knowledge that colleagues would often find books or newspaper cuttings put in their pigeon holes on subjects that had cropped up in the staffroom just the day before. The cuttings he supplied would usually be rustled up from the enormous collection he would keep in shoeboxes that he had crammed into his Hitchin home.

Such an eclectic mind was often put to good financial use, with trips around the town to regularly empty the pubs' fruit machines of their coffers. For Mr Myers, who was affectionately known simply as Myers or Big Al, teaching was a vocation.

A distrust of authority meant he was difficult to manage, but his maverick character inspired successive generations of pupils. For him, school was about teaching what he thought was important and what his pupils needed to know. His obvious intelligence was not scornful of those who knew less; rather, his passion was for sharing that gift.

His teaching to sixth-formers became legendary as rapt boys listened to him talk about subjects ranging from Plato to Marx - all in the same hour, without notes or visual aids.

He was a man who loved books and hacked out newspaper cuttings, but hated modern technology, fearing it would remove the personal touch between humans and literature. But he later put it to good use, setting up his own Wikipedia page and an A-Z list of literary people connected with his native North East. Colleagues would play a game of trying to catch him out with which figures he had missed off.

Born in South Shields, he was a fierce defender of the region and staff at The Guardian newspaper would often receive anonymous postcards pointing out the inaccuracies or omissions about the North East in the published copy. It was only when he wrote to the editor that his cover was broken.

That these were anonymous was typical - such mystery was partly put down to the shyness so often synonymous with larger-than-life characters but was also attributed to his time spent in Moscow as part of his Russian studies at London University. These took him as an exchange student to the Soviet capital, where he met his future wife Diana, who returned to England with him in 1961.

He was often in touch with Russian emigres in London and was fond of telling the story that he was interviewed by both the CIA and KGB in the same week. Perhaps his anxieties about the spooks - he would never answer his home phone, always preferring callers leave messages after the beep - fuelled his desire to be secretive. He once told colleagues he had spent a week sharing a cabin on the Baltic Sea with a murderer - and left it at that.

This air of mystery extended into his later life where his mastery of the Russian language saw him become an acclaimed translator of Russian literature into English. His translations included work by Pushkin and in 1992 his reputation was cemented internationally with an edition of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

Perhaps his most eye-catching commission was to translate a Russian film version of a Dickens novel into English for an American audience. He later said he was paid for the work in used roubles in a gents' toilet at King's Cross.

His last translations were published by Penguin in 1999 but his version of The Idiot won him a new - and very large - audience as the preferred text for schools and universities in China.

Old ladies in Hitchin might remember him for his ability to stop traffic to let them cross the road, while friends remember him for his 20 years riding a moped without ever having a licence.

But it was his teaching ability that inspired hundreds, as he regarded education as an act of charity, opening pupils' eyes to where their abilities, large or small, might take them.

Alan Myers died on August 8, aged 76.

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