Peter Rushforth - a Yorkshire novelist and teacher

Introduction * "Kindergarten" * "Pinkerton's Sister" * "A Dead Language" * Some appreciations

A Spring Meeting to celebrate the work of Peter - Saturday May 13th 2006

A 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.

The meeting 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 writer.

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A brief extract from a third (unpublished) book of the five, Touching the Wound was also read.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 literature.

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.

May 2006 meeting

I would gladly return this address book to Vicki (Barnet?) if anyone can trace her?

Robina Barton

“Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him Dear life redeems you”

Beryl Colwell John and Rosie ReadmanJane Campbell in the Memorabilia RoomHermione 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 Tale’

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”.

Alma StroudPlaying 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.

Harry PearsonAs 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.

Catherine and Harry Pearson, Phil Brown and Colin RendallI 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.

Jean Mansfield, Moira Goodall and Ann WighamWhen 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.

Lynn Roderick and Colin RendallI 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!

Erica Sessa, ? and Fred SessaJust 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. Vivienne Rendall and Stuart BartonHe 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 aircraft….

Martin Essex and Lynn RoderickFinally, 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 Rushforth, Friend’.

The Rendalls, Bartons and Beryl ColwellHe 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.

Margaret Donaldson and IanThe 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.
Robert and Jane CampbellWhen 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.

Michelle Parkes and Robina BartonReading 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 with humour.
Michelle Parkes and Lisa GoodallI 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 squint.”

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. Pam Haw, Denise Essex and Sally_DennisonAnother 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 all.

Molly Brown and Pam in the kitchenRosie and John ReadmanMany thanks to James Slater for photographing the meeting.

Moving your mouse over the pictures will reveal the names of some of the gathering.

Any information to pass on about Peter and his work, or have problems with using the web site please email Phil Brown * site updated December 22nd 2009 *

Scenes near where Peter lived in the village of Castleton in the North York Moors National Park

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