What happened was this: drumroll, flames, hush, uplifted cake knife but, before it could descend, came a tremendous knocking at the front door. TREMENDOUS. Such a knocking that the birthday candles dipped and swayed and dropped wax on the chocolate tiles; the bough of lilac tossed, scattering nodes of bloom; the very parquet underneath us started to tremble, about to rise up.
A thrill ran through the room. Something unscripted is about to happen.
I first remember meeting Jimmy Buchanan after a couple of weeks of A Level English. We’d all been set Angela Carter’s Wise Children to read and were hopelessly lost and confused, so he was parachuted in to set us on the right track. He would take passages that we’d puzzled over, tried and failed to dissect, and just read them to us – but read them with such booming enthusiasm, his perfect stream of consciousness delivery, that for the first time we’d sit up and take note of the big bloody obvious thing we’d been missing: it was hilariously funny.
He was that kind of teacher – the utter maverick, so completely impossible to imitate – never safe and dull. Through his teaching he passed on joy for the literature he loved. Long after I’ve forgotten so many lessons from school, I can still hear Mr. Buchanan utterly glorying in Othello, pausing whenever Roderigo appeared on the page to remind us all, once again, just was an idiot the man is. He would shout this, by the way, like he would shout many things: swearing liberally, because the rules that applied to other teachers just didn’t apply to him. (I’m pretty sure that teachers aren’t supposed to grab you just before you sit down for an exam, loudly wish you luck and kiss you on the forehead, either. He did.)
It was so appropriate that he made a point of insisting I read magical realism, because at times he felt like a magical character himself. He seemed intimate with any cultural reference that came up, like he had been there himself, and threw out hints to a colourful and vaguely mysterious past. On the New York trip, as we walked around one night, his voice dropped into sombre tones as he recounted the people in the neighbourhood who had died from AIDS in the 1980s. In class, he once scoffed at me for praising Transport for London (corporate, professional, controlled) because it was nothing like the good old days of London Transport (friendly, ramshackle, slapdash). Angela Carter’s death seemed like a personal loss to him.
I was always particularly jealous of his class, because while the rest of us had to sludge through the dreary evangelism of William Blake, he had demanded (successfully, of course) that his class study Byron’s Don Juan instead. Why have plodding sentimentalism when you can have an epic adventure, satire and swashbuckling tales instead? That was him all over. And he was fiercely opposed to euphemism. No one passes away at the end of Hamlet: “they all get deaded”. Cue wicked grin and a broad laugh.
I totally loved him. Everybody did. There must be so many students with their own stories and memories of him – people who got to know him much better than I did. But he was always pleased to see me again, after I left, as I’m sure he made an effort to remember so many faces he’d taught over the years. It was a real privilege to be one of them.