Professor Peter Charles Bayley

born 25 January 1921; died 3 November 2015

English Fellow, 1949-1972, Emeritus Fellow, and Old Member (matriculated 1940), University College, Oxford

A tribute by David Michael Gwynne George (matriculated 1962), which appears here, with minor revisions, was first published in University College Record November 2016. Permission to reproduce the caricature of P.C.B. is kindly given by its creator, Professor David Hawkins, MA(OXON), FBA, Honorary Fellow, and Old Member, University College, Oxford

I was very sorry to learn of the death of Peter Bayley (Record November 2015).

I hope that the “fuller tribute” promised for the next issue of Record in 2016 may include a reproduction in colour of the brilliant caricature by Professor David Hawkins. In it, an uncanny likeness of the stage-struck don contemplates a skull in his outstretched hand.

As Uncle Monty says in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I, “It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, I will never play the Dane.”

Would it have made a difference in my relationship with my tutor in English from 1962 to 1965 had I been able to give a satisfactory answer to the question - to quote Uncle Monty again - “Oh splendid. So you’re a thesbian?”

At Leyton County High School for Boys, from 1954 to 1955, in The Miser, a translation by Miles Malleson of Molière’s L’Avare, I was Marianne, in a gown of pink satin expertly fashioned by the mother of my Cléante, Derek Jacobi. Sadly, the career path to future theatrical greatness was cut short by my transfer to Bromley Grammar School for Boys (1955 to 1962), from which establishment I was preceded, by one year, also to read English with Peter, by Michael Johnson - see M. York-Johnson Esq, OBE. ‘Nuff said’.

The Oxford English School was, at least in my day, dear reader, itself a sort of performance art, a theatre, if not of outright cruelty, of the absurd. “Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf”, Woody Allen advises Diane Keaton as she leafs through a college prospectus in Annie Hall. No less an authority than Kingsley Amis, in his Memoirs, writes of his friend Philip Larkin, “If ever a man spoke for his generation it was when he, mentioning some piece of what he called in a letter to me ‘ape’s bumfodder’, he said, ‘I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in. What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff’.”

And then, of course, there was the weekly essay, a species of low comedy, to be played out in a book-lined room before an audience of Peter, a Spenserian, and, latterly, an intermittently flatulent beagle.

Either by accident, or more likely, design, the way to Peter’s - his term - “dark stairs”, took one past the Shelley Memorial (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) There, in Onslow Ford’s over-the-top representation, laid out on an elaborate fishmonger’s slab, the bollock-naked radical, expelled in his first year for atheism, ironically, now serves an indeterminate sentence, within a wrought-iron cage. (Did the College ever identify the person who succeeded in insinuating himself between the bars in order to apply a coat of pink nail varnish to the marble scrotum of P.B.S.?)

“Alas! Poor Yorick.” (Hamlet, V.i.161).

I cannot now recall the nature of the business that necessitated my being in Oxford again, on a Sunday evening in November, in the late 1960s, in the company of Diana Athill, a director of André Deutsch Limited, where I was then employed. I do know that, at my suggestion, we took a chance on finding my former tutor “at home”, in the College of which, as Peter was to discover following our impromptu visit, Diana’s great-grandfather, James Franck Bright, had been Master. As Peter tells it, in “Family Matters” (Record 2002), the undoubted highlight of the brief exchanges over a glass of sherry was how, at the “shy request” of V.S. Naipaul, then his pupil, Peter read “an immense manuscript … material for two or even three books”, which, so it proved, Diana was later to edit for publication.

In a letter to me, dated 25 October 1995, Peter wrote, “Publishing, now it’s in the hands of accountants instead of reading gentlemen, is a ghastly trade, & it’s extremely difficult to get anything published - as I know myself - unless you’re a media star, a found-out speculator, a notorious debauchee.” However, as he also confided in a Christmas card, written around the same time, “I am, of course, writing memoirs, & might soon need professional advice & service”!

Like “poor Yorick”, Peter was a fellow - read Fellow - “of infinite jest”. Worthy of at least a footnote in the memoirs, were they ever to be published, was the black-tie dinner for those gentlemen reading English at Univ - not a College, as described by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall, which echoed to “the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass” - which concluded, happily, with a benevolently beaming P.C.B. being propelled at break-neck speed around the Main Quad in a wheelbarrow procured for the purpose from the Fellows’ Garden.

“We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart,” (Hamlet, I.ii.175).
© Michael George