Professor Christopher Salvesen 1935-2015
Wednesday, 14 January 2015
Born in Edinburgh in 1935, Christopher Salvesen was descended from a long-established whaling family. He grew up in south-west Scotland and, after National Service, studied at Oxford. In 1962 he was appointed to a lectureship at Trinity College, Dublin and it was there that he wrote his study of Wordsworth, The Landscape of Memory, expressing his lifelong affinity for the Lake Poets. Christopher came to Reading in 1966, and in 1971 took over as Head of the Department of English. Apart from the year 1973-4 spent at Penn State University, he remained at Reading until his retirement in 2000.
Christopher’s temperament was a poet’s rather than an administrator’s; fierce bursts of energy and wit were succeeded by long periods of apparent dormancy. His headship began in difficult circumstances after the long regime of the legendary Renaissance scholar Donald Gordon. Student numbers were growing, however, and significant new appointments were made. Christopher’s vision for the Department was one of gradual but seamless change, and he ruled by consensus; long discussions were held on the Quaker principle but a vote was never taken. He was a keen member of the Departmental football team and, I have heard, a fearsome tackler. He had a strong and absorbing home life, thanks to Charlotte and his four daughters.
In the early 1970s, he was art critic of The Listener under the editorship of Karl Miller. His principal creative outlet, however, was in his poetry. His first verse collection, Floodsheaf: from a Parish History, was published by the Whiteknights Press in 1974 and enthusiastically received by fellow-poets such as P. J. Kavanagh and Peter Porter. Here and in Among the Goths (1986) Christopher drew extensively on his own childhood ‘landscape of memory’ in Nithsdale, Dumfriesshire. His inclusion in Douglas Dunn’s Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry (1992) moved one unenthusiastic reviewer to comment that a professor at Reading could not possibly be a Scottish poet. Yet Christopher remained deeply Scottish, and his mastery of Lallans and the Doric is evident in some of his poems. As he wrote in a foreword to Among the Goths, ‘The Scottish vocabulary is necessarily intermittent but a Scottish register is to be heard throughout’.
In later years his poetic subject-matter was far from being confined to Scotland. He wrote meditations on European history from the Romans to the present day, notably recalling his Army service in Germany and family holidays in Italy. He was warmly received at the University of Kassel, where he took a leading role in setting up the first of the English Department’s European student exchanges. Christopher’s career as a poet continued after his retirement, with his volume The Long Gallery appearing in 2008 and a pamphlet, Crossing the Border, in 2011. John Lucas, whose Shoestring Press published The Long Gallery, recalls that Christopher launched it with a memorable public reading in Edinburgh. On one other memorable occasion, in his ‘Near-Elegy at Cemetery Junction’, he took the well-known Reading landmark as a subject for verse. The poem is both witty and tender and ends with a moment of chilling foresight as he suggests that January, the time of his birth, might also be the month of his death. After playing on the riddling possibilities of the place-name, he concludes as follows:
These few rough words
Scratch out as good a token of continuing
Life as anything I can think of or feel the need of.
Professor Patrick Parrinder