Two Oxford Men…

Today for St. Frideswide, who is best marked, perhaps, with a Respite in memory of two Oxford men, neither of whom I knew well, but whose presence I observed around the city, and whose further acquaintance I will now no longer have.


Jerome Bertram was a father of the Oxford Oratory. I noted him first as an undergraduate, for his unabashed used of Greek in homilies. (I recall Aristophanes.) Years later it was one of the great aesthetic and spiritual pleasures, on brief return from Malawi, to hear his Dawn Mass on Christmas Day: the old Mass, of course. It was after the same, in 2018, when I had been compelled to exchange family for faith, that we inclined heads for the last time. It redeemed an otherwise rather desolate feast. I had noted for some time an increasingly mystical reference to death in his homilies (‘decay is a blessing unknown to the angels’ vel sim.) and I discovered, on regretting his absence at the Dawn Mass in 2019, that he had died earlier in the year: indeed, two years ago this day. I knew him otherwise only through his books (Vita communis the sort of work that I hope I am spared to write) and through a single conversation, when he appeared at my shoulder at a display of Laudian vestments at the Oratory. The conversation, before it was interrupted, turned to the daughter house in Port Elizabeth, which I had visited, one storm lashed night in 2013, and for which Jerome was responsible.


I learned of the death of Prof. Richard Sharpe, at the time when the world turned, in March 2020, only this morning. He lived in Grandpont, around the corner from my Oxford house, and we would nod to each other as we passed – walking fast – on the Abingdon Road: I think he knew of my retreat to Africa. It was reassuring to glance up, at night, and to see him at books in his handsome library: even if Malawi residence entails suspension of Oxford work, at least other work is ongoing. (This was my conceit.) He was briefly my doctoral ‘father’, but he sacked me, peremptorily and quite rightly, for distraction by ephemera. I recall a distant lunch’ in some Jericho café, when he seemed, perhaps for want of better conversation, beset by proctorial duties. Otherwise, there returns to me also his learned aside, delivered as we walked back to Grandpont together (just once), on the name of his own Whitehouse Road. His writings magisterial: his Handlist and his edition of Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba alike on my shelves (I took the latter once to Iona).


There are those in Oxford whom I have known (indeed, know) far better. I doubt that either Jerome Bertram or Richard Sharpe would have recognised my name. However, Oxford will seem the poorer for not seeing them around, and the burthen on those of us who remain is, accordingly, the heavier. Academics, in the debased sense of the word, they were not: gentlemen, rather, and scholars. May they rest in peace.