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Memorial Service by J. I. M. Stewart

Memorial Service (edition 1977)

by J. I. M. Stewart

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Title:Memorial Service
Authors:J. I. M. Stewart
Info:Littlehampton Book Services Ltd (1977), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 288 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, Staircase in Surrey

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Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart



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I found re-reading this novel particularly moving. This is the third volume in Stewart's masterful sequence A Staircase in Surrey and it opens with Duncan Pattullo embarking on a new career as a Fellow of his old Oxford College. I had the great good fortune to enjoy a brief tenure as a Fellow of an Oxford College during the early/mid 1980s, perhaps ten or fifteen years after this novel is set, and despite that slight time lag I felt that I could recognise almost everything that Pattullo encounters. Certainly the relationships between the different tenants of the staircase struck all too poignant a chord with me.

After all, Stewart himself was an accomplished academic, publishing a series of highly regarded works on late nineteenth/early twentieth century English literature (with particular emphasis on Conrad), so he knew what he was talking about.

The plot revolves around an academic wrangle over a manuscript donated to the College by Lord Blunderville, one of its more celebrated alumni who had eventually risen to be Prime Minister at some unspecified spell between the World Wars. In the preceding volume, Young Pattullo, set during Duncan's time as an undergraduate, we happened to be present when Christopher Cressey, an aloof history don, made away with the book in question, seemingly with the former Prime Minister's blessing. More than twenty years on Cressey still has the manuscript, and the College is now striving to recover it using whatever means are available to it. Duncan is bemused, wondering why so much consternation should arise from the fate of this small book.

Meanwhile the loutish Ivo Mumford, son of Duncan's closest friend from his own student days, is struggling to retain his place in the College having completely fluffed his exams while revelling in the rowdy exploits of the Uffington Club, an exclusive clique of wealthy rowdies (presumably modelled on an early incarnation of David Cameron's Bullingdon Club). Duncan invites the wretched Ivo to launch with a view to trying to encourage him to greater application to his books. These advances are roundly snubbed, though Ivo does tell Duncan that he has been working with a friend to develop a new University magazine by the name of Priapus. Duncan is understandably concerned!

However, the plot, though engaging, is almost superfluous to the glory of the book. Stewart captures the eternal contradictions that bedevil almost every aspect of life in academic Oxford. The College basks in its centuries-long history and proudly defends its traditions, yet is also alive to the changing demands of its undergraduates in times of changing social mores. Personal animosities flourish between the Fellows, yet they are capable of immense sensitivity to the plight of their undergraduates.

Though far shorter than Anthony Powell's beautiful A Dance to the Music of Time, there are great similarities, not least in the use of hilarious scenes underpinned with waves of melancholy. Indeed, one of the leading character, Cyril Bedworth, has made a career on critical appraisal of Anthony Powell's novels.

Eternally enchanting - I could happily re-read this series every year. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Apr 17, 2013 |
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