- a Yorkshire novelist and teacher
Introduction * "Kindergarten" * "Pinkerton's Sister" * "A Dead Language" *
A Spring Meeting
to celebrate the work of Peter
- Saturday May 13th 2006
Celebration of the Life of Peter S Rushforth
A very well attended meeting was on Saturday 13th May
2006 in Great Ayton Friends’ Meeting House to celebrate the life of
Peter S Rushforth.
began with the aria Erbarme Dich from JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion – a
reference drawn from Peter’s first book Kindergarten. Peter was
remembered as a gifted teacher, an excellent friend and a remarkable
Extracts from the two books thus far published (Pinkerton’s Sister and A
Dead Language) from A Malady of Thought (Peter’s proposed title for his
planned Pinkerton Quintet) were read during the meeting.
A brief extract
from a third (unpublished) book of the five, Touching the Wound was also
read. The power of this passage (describing through a child’s eyes, the
suicide of the abandoned Madame Butterfly,) brought home most
devastatingly and poignantly what a loss Peter’s death has been to
The meeting ended with Beim Schlafengehen, one of Richard Strauss’ Four
Last Songs. As the last chord of the song died away, the Ayton School
clock began the first chime of 4 o’clock.
A retiring collection raised £133 for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, - a
charity supported by Peter’s father and sister.
I would gladly
return this address book to Vicki (Barnet?) if anyone can trace her?
to death your numbness, for from him Dear life redeems you”
Hermione responds to Paulina’s command and the still figure, believed by
her grieving husband to be a statue of the wife he lost sixteen years
before returns to life before his eyes in the climax of ‘A Winter’s
The play is a challenging one, combining deep tragedy and light comedy
and built around themes of childhood innocence, loss, redemption, nature
and new life. As underlined in Peter’s own copy of the play, “It covers
the whole tragic pattern from prosperity to destruction, regeneration
and still fairer prosperity”.
Playing the role of Hermione at Rosehill Theatre was a serious
undertaking for me. Added to the difficulty and depth of the play was my
knowledge that it was Peter’s favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays.
As I prepared to descend the staircase after fifteen minutes of standing
on a cold balcony immobile like a statue I felt all the importance of
conveying the emotion of the moment in silence, along with the moving
and effortless grace of the Queen. As if this wasn’t daunting enough I
had strained my groin three days previously in a hockey match. Instead
of embracing new life I had visions of myself as Hermione seizing up and
toppling to my death down the stairs, thus causing pain to my family and
also totally destroying the whole point of the play. It would be like
the performance of Tosca when she hurled herself to her death, landed on
a trampoline put there by malicious colleagues and returned to life
fifteen times as she bounced up before the bemused eyes of the audience.
I know that Peter had a great sense of humour but I didn’t want to spoil
this one for him. The themes within this play were very close to his
heart. “’The Winter’s Tale’ is hovering on the threshold of some
extraordinary truth related to both ‘nature and ‘eternity’. Hence its
emphasis on the seasons, birth and childhood, the continual moulding of
new miracles on the pattern of the old”. Again Peter had underlined this
critique in his copy of the play, and certainly the theme of childhood
innocence, and the light that children can bring to dark places is
prevalent in his own writing, particularly Kindergarten. Peter seemed to
have a high opinion of children and belief in their potential. In a
letter to me he said he wanted to explore ‘the loyalty and friendship of
which children are capable” in A Dead Language, even in the face of the
often cruel, dark and hostile adult world.
When Peter died I truly felt more bereaved than I had ever felt before,
and I thought that this was strange, so I have spent much time in trying
to understand why. I have realised that while he lived, Peter influenced
my life in three major ways:
Unlike the children of whom Peter has written, I had no great tragedy,
no great cross to bear as I was growing up. I thoroughly enjoyed my
schooldays, and the good friends I had at Friends School remain my good
friends today. My memories of Ayton School are almost without exception
happy ones, but the happiest of them are those that involved Peter and
Larry Clennell and Martin Essex - the English lessons, the theatre
visits, the music, the drama productions in Rosehill.
I enjoyed many subjects but it is Peter’s lessons I remember most
vividly; his meticulous preparation and presentation; his unusual and
thought provoking assignments; his expression when any of us came up
with feeble excuses for why they weren’t handed in on time, and most of
all his habit of swivelling me round by my pony tail every time I turned
around to gossip with Lucy in class!
Just as I owe many of my happiest memories to Peter, I also owe much of
my moral education to him. Through his choice of subject matter, his
introducing us to the darker side of life through literature and film,
my own outlook on life has been shaped. I was hardly mollycoddled by my
parents, or shielded from the sufferings of others, but it was Peter who
gave me my first real taste of man’s inhumanity to man – the trenches of
World War One, the Pinochet regime, the My Lai massacre.
He always said
that grim distressing subjects made us write better than happy ones. I
must say that this theory was never properly put to the test – I don’t
recall him giving us any happy ones to try! I don’t mean to say he was
entirely responsible for my mental breakdown, but after watching
‘Threads’ I developed a habit of diving under tables to shield myself
from the imminent nuclear holocaust every time I heard a low flying
Finally, I owe much to Peter as a good and kind friend. I remember a
phone conversation some years ago, after I left school. He had called to
speak to mum or dad but they were out, and he ended up nattering to me
about some new windows he had got. I was suddenly struck by the thought
that he was no longer ‘Mr Rushforth, English Teacher’, he was ‘Peter
He has been my ‘Personal Reference’ for my many job applications over
the years. He never complained at being pestered yet again (though
perhaps he vented his frustration through his writing since I never
actually got a decent job!) Like many others I benefited from his daily
scissor attacks on newspapers and magazines, and he’s the person I think
of when I see or hear something striking, clever or funny. Even his
lifestyle appealed to me – his beautiful home, his appreciation of the
finer things in life, his wide-ranging interests.
The last time I saw Peter we visited him in Castleton, where he was
having a clear out as part of his home improvements. He had thought,
with his characteristic kindness, that Stu and I might be in need of
furniture, and offered us numerous things including two fantastic bright
orange comfy chairs.
Having examined and explained my great sense of loss, I have wondered
where to go from here, and have returned to literature to try to make
some sense of what has happened. I remember being greatly struck when I
studied ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles with Peter, by the part in which she
contemplates the day of her own death - that
‘day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year,
giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the
less surely there.
When was it? Why did she not feel the chill of each
yearly encounter with such a cold relation?’ The idea that fate is
predetermined is all pervasive. Whether Peter’s death was predetermined
as part of the great scheme of things, or whether it was a deeply sad
but nonetheless random occurrence is something we can never know, but as
with The Winter’s Tale,having seen the tragic pattern from prosperity to
destruction I now look forward to regeneration and new life.
Reading Peter’s writing is like hearing Peter speaking and he lives
again for us through his work. Reading it is sometimes difficult, often
challenging, but always rewarding if you have the time to sit and enjoy
it and do it justice. His books can be read and reread and each time is
a unique and affecting experience. A literary analysis of Pinkerton’s
Sister in the same detail as he devoted to Tess of the D’Urbervilles
could take a lifetime. Peter once wrote to me jokingly “What an
intelligent book critic you are, obviously taught by a supremely gifted
teacher”. This was mock boastfulness on his part but he was supremely
gifted. He taught with logic, insight, passion and humour – especially
I asked him with some trepidation if he gained inspiration from people
he knew when creating his fictional characters, since I felt that most
of the children in Pinkerton’s Sister were pretty detestable. He said I
shouldn’t “hold out too much hope of a successful libel suit as the
utterly appalling child actress / dancer – Rosina Rundell – who appears
in my next book cannot possibly because she has blonde hair and a
In many ways Peter’s death, like his life, has proved a catalyst for
change in the life of my family and me. It has led to the rekindling of
old friendships and the forging of new ones. It has also broadened my
horizons in many ways. Peter clearly believed in and demonstrated the
importance of literature, music and art in our growth and development.
This view has had a profound effect on me.
Another former pupil
suggested to him that Pinkerton’s Sister was “a cunning plot” to make us
“fill some of the gaps in our reading. As Peter’s beautiful home has
been slowly cleared of his cherished possessions, I have given a new
home to a fragment of his enormous library of books, music and pictures.
I now have a chance to “fill some of the gaps” in my own reading using
his texts – many of them covered in his characteristic scribbles and underlinings – where did he find the time? I have already been inspired
to visit the home of Wordsworth in the Lake District, where I viewed his
wooden writing chair and reflected on the bright orange comfy chairs in
my bedroom on which Peter penned his first novel Kindergarten.
Peter’s tastes were eclectic and fascinating and I am now inspired to
move in directions I might never otherwise have considered. I believe
that through his work and his friendship this is Peter’s legacy to us
Many thanks to James Slater
for photographing the meeting.
mouse over the pictures will reveal the names of some of the gathering.