Peter Rushforth - a Yorkshire novelist and teacher

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

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

Some recent reviews of Peter's work


Peter Rushforth

Peter celebrating the publication of "Pinkerton's Sister"

A tribute from Dave Chapman, October 2005

"Peter was unique."

This was our eldest son's reaction when we spoke to him a little over a week ago. I have often thought of those words over the past few days and nights.  Indeed, we are all unique, but Peter was exceptional. To those who might observe him from the far side of the street he was a quiet man who lived alone. But we know Peter to have been a man of humour who lived his life surrounded by friends.

Many of his closest friends shared his home, living with him waiting patiently on his bookshelves, in his video cupboard and CD rack.  It is hard to imagine anyone who derived so much pleasure from the spoken and written word.  One might imagine that someone with Peter's immense literary depth would choose the classics or modern tomes, which jostle for a place on the Booker shortlist.  Well on the one hand you would be right but on the other Peter read children's literature, loving and being only half jokingly envious of J.K. Rowling. Peter devoured detective novels and he couldn't wait to discover a new author whose books he would then pursue with the skill of an Inspector Rebus.

To say that Peter read a newspaper is to misunderstand his approach to the broad-sheet. Peter attacked the newspaper. He attacked it with a pair of scissors as if he was back at infant school making a paper doyley.  Out would come articles for friends, out would come articles for filing, out would come puzzles, out would come coupons, adverts, pictures. You didn't lend Peter a paper until you had read it first.

Peter's theatre visits, sometimes with Alma sometimes alone, were legion. He would enthuse about his three operas in one day epics. These visits were so regular that I often feel that if you wished to find your way to the centre of Leeds a close study the road surface between Castleton and Leeds would reveal the racing line laid down by Peter's tyres.

It was, of course, from one such visit to see his friend Madame Butterfly that he derived the inspiration for the saga of the dysfunctional Pinkertons. And it is from these pages that for the first time we could peek right inside his head and understand his flights of fancy, which, until then, had only revealed themselves in his wit, rapport and schoolboy humour.

Indeed Peter's quips were so frequent that they are difficult to capture in anecdote but I well remember the time when he was faced with the selection of buttons on his oven his finger hesitated before he pushed the button marked economy and he proudly announced "There, that's my contribution to global warming."

Peter's greatest friends were his family. The love he felt for Emily, Sam and Jenny was heart warming and they reflected his glow.  Although we have only recently met with his nephews Dan and Dom we have really known them for years as Peter never tired of telling us of the boys' achievements and interests, in their dual national lives their snowboard and car dealing antics.

From this family epicentre, his friendships seemed to have some sort of planetary motion as he moved around small bodies of ex-colleagues, theatre lovers, walking buddies and publishing teams whose orbits came close but only occasionally crossed. I am from planet walking buddie.

Many years ago Peter joined Mike, Phil and myself on our weekly walk over the moors. Every available Sunday for many years we met up at Phil's in Castleton and walked whichever way the spirit took us. I well remember the route of Peter's first walk with us and I shudder.  The anti-clockwise route around Rosedale - this way you have go up Chimney Bank. Peter's face changed through all the colours of a rainbow whose spectrum starts with yellowish and ends with the red and violet coming together. That he returned to walk again is down to another of his qualities sheer cussedness.

It's fair to say Peter was always Tail End Charlie for two clear reasons. First he was no Olympic athlete and secondly his mind was rarely on the job. In the long years leading up to the Publication of Pinkerton's sister Peter used these walks to juggle the order of words into the perfect sentence, leaving us to worry about the rightful positions of Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday in their respective leagues. In Phil Brown's words "Peter would consign all talk of cricket and football to room 101 without a second thought."  But on one walk down Danby Dale we had moved on to the number of Australians in the football league when a little voice from behind said "Leeds has an Australian player." Three gob-smacked heads turned in Peter's direction.  It was hard to say whether we were more impressed that he knew about Vadouka or that he knew Leeds actually had a football team.

Peter RushforthOut on the Sunday morning walk with friends (Peter, Dave Chapman and Andy Dyer, Phil Brown behind camera)

At times our walks were curtailed by the weather conditions and an early morning phone cancellation was called for. At such times Peter would affect an outrageously disappointed tone and you just knew he was about to gleefully leap from his bed, run down stairs for the Sunday paper and put the coffee on. In all the time we walked together I don't recall Peter buying any walking gear. None of this Gore-Tex stuff for him his old school, over the head anorak served him well until one day he announced that he had bought a new rucksack - it was on offer with petrol - "But we never carry rucksacks Peter they are for real walkers" - but it was on offer and Peter couldn't resist a good offer.

There can be few book clubs, wine clubs, record clubs, CD clubs that Peter has not joined as a result of the unmissable opening offers. Peter bought any number of items through catalogues from diminutive bird tables to two electric labelling machines (batteries not included). The lovely thing was that he was always delighted with every bargain, it was always even better than the picture in the catalogue, more suitable than he had imagined and he was always surprised that you didn't take advantage of the same offer.

Peter RushforthIf Peter was guilty of anything it was of committing random acts of kindness. When our youngest son declared his love of the pain o'chocolate Peter brought some back for him from his next trip to York, When he discovered Leslie was not sleeping well he returned from Leeds with a book light for insomniacs and, when he realised I needed a roomier place to knock longer nails into larger pieces of wood he offered me a room over his garage. When we recently returned from holidays our kind neighbours had arranged our mail into 3 piles - his, hers and Peter's sudoku puzzles and newspaper clippings that he regularly pushed through the letterbox.

I am not claiming special status in this - Peter did it for everyone - we were all as much a part of him as he of us. When many of us were asked for three words that describe Peter for his American publicity machine, he was genuinely moved by the answers. Knowing that he wouldn't be short of heartfelt complements I chose the many a true word route - I said Peter was impulsive, compulsive and remarkably kind - I would simply add that

Peter enriched our lives and brightened our days.

An Obituary by Colin Rendall, October 2005

To die in an instant, without premonition, among close friends, walking through wonderful countryside towards a fine lunch, is probably as good an end as anyone could hope for. But it was a wretched, untimely end for a gifted author on the brink of richly deserved recognition. Peter Rushforth, who died on 25th September, was born in Gateshead, County Durham and went to school in Leeds. A graduate of Hull University, he spent the greatest part of his working life as a schoolteacher at a Quaker school in North Yorkshire. A generation of young people benefited mightily from his meticulous preparation, inventive and imaginative presentation and his infectious enthusiasm for words from every source. No man ever had a more open mind or catholic taste. 

Moved by the discovery of records relating to Jewish child refugees from Nazi Germany who attended Quaker schools, Peter Rushforth wrote his first and, until the eve of his death, his only novel, Kindergarten. Deservedly, this original and unsentimental work about terror past and present, real and fictional, won the Hawthornden Prize for the best first novel in 1979. Silence followed but to everyone's surprise it had been a richly creative silence. For, over two decades, a great story, to be presented in five novels, took shape in Peter's mind. Tragically Peter's death will certainly deny us three of those books (though they exist in draft) but the last year of Peter's life was sweetened by the publication of the first of the quintet, Pinkerton's Sister, and he looked forward to its immediate successor appearing in print in the Spring of 2006. The books, typically inspired by a visit to the theatre many tears ago to hear Puccini's Madam Butterfly, are set in New York as the 19th Century gave way to the 20th. They tell the imagined story of the dysfunctional family that spawned the faithless Lieutenant Benjamin Pinkerton. Ben's sister, Alice, is the eponymous heroine of the first novel. Believed unbalanced, even mad, by her family, she is neither. A single day lived through her book-driven imagination is almost an education in itself. Next Spring's A Dead Language follows Ben's unhappy journey through his adolescence. The books are dark, authentic in every detail, erudite and extremely funny.

Peter never went to North America, still less to New York but had he lived, he would have crossed the Atlantic last month to read from Pinkerton's Sister at the Vancouver Writers' Festival. In the event Jonathan Coe took his place and for a brief moment became Peter's voice, reading a passage from Pinkerton's Sister that Peter might well have chosen himself. A passage that displayed Peter's gifts for descriptive writing, irony and biting humour. This was a great kindness from one author to another that would have been hugely appreciated by Peter.

I hope the rest is not silence. Peter Rushforth served literature marvellously well in the classroom and his own contribution to its quiet store, cut short as it has been, is remarkable. His books deserve to be read and talked about. And those who grieve for his passing may be interested in a memorial meeting was held to celebrate, in words and music, Peter's life, in the Spring of 2006 at Great Ayton Friends' Meeting House and coincided with the publication of A Dead Language.

Written for the Guardian newspaper.

Other obituaries:

Sheila Partington, Independent


A few recollections by Phil and Molly Brown

Peter was teaching at the Quaker School in Great Ayton, Cleveland, when we first met in the village of Castleton, North Yorkshire about 25 years ago. He had bought a house from one of our friends in Castleton village on the North York Moors, where we live and Peter never moved from there. He joined our Sunday morning walking group and became a good family friend. He was really helpful to our two girls when it came to their GCSE/A level English Literature and to Rosamund when studying Drama at Hull University (the university which Peter studied for his degree). He was absolutely devoted to his parents (Sam is still alive at 85+ and bearing up remarkably well), his sister Jenny and her two sons. Peter was self-deprecating with a wonderful dry sense of humour

The Friends School was heading for closure so Peter took the opportunity to retire early 10 years ago, aged 50, and at last had time to do what he really wanted to do - write novels! He was a brilliant English Literature teacher, but I think he found the job very draining and frustrating and was delighted to retire. Over the last 10 years he had worked intensely and enthusiastically on, what would have become a quartet of novels. Pinkerton's Sister" has been published and the 2nd "A Dead Language" is to be published in the spring of 2006. As a retired chemistry teacher (Phil was Head of Chemistry at Whitby Community College, and my website is called "Doc Brown's Chemistry Clinic" - the named coined by Peter!)It  was a great to have the time to help him with small parts of the, soon to be published novel, "A dead language" via some ideas on the chemistry scenes in the laboratory of a 'Doc Brown' which developed into absolutely hilarious fantasies once I'd given Peter the boring chemical facts! There may be enough finished of the 3rd in the series to publish, but I'm not sure on that one.

We cannot believe what as happened, especially as Peter, only aged 60, was at the height of his creative powers and was about to do a double literary trip to Canada and reading with such luminaries as A S Byatt a great supporter of his writing. We sadly miss his company and the Sunday walking group is reduced to two (Dave Chapman and Phil Brown, a 4th member, Mike Stainsby, died of cancer two years ago - he had written a local history book which Peter proof-read). Peter suffered a massive heart attack near the end of our Sunday morning walk on Sept 25th 2005 and despite ours, passers by, paramedics etc. it seems little could have been done.

It took a long time to get to know Peter, a very private person in many ways, but the critical acclaim "Pinkerton's Sister" and the prospect of developing a quartet of novels in the long run, reading the reviews, seeing himself on bookshelves etc. etc. really made him come out of himself and he became much more sociable. We at last got an insight into what had really been going on his head over the last 10+ years on the 'quieter' parts of the walk and the often, intervening, non-contact 6 days between walks. Apart from his huge knowledge of the theatre and operas (backed up by shelves of books and later CD's) we also had prior glimpses of his vast literary knowledge when accompanying him on the Friends School trips to see Shakespeare at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. Once on the coach, we all got 'revision' notes to study - brilliant, but he wouldn't tell all, he left plenty for you to work out from the live performance!!!!


'Kindergarten' was Peter's first novel that won the Hawthornden Prize for the best first novel in 1979 and hopefully will be re-published.

Peter Rushforth"Pinkerton's Sister"

A selection of Reviews from 2005

  1. 1. The Guardian:,12084,1306182,00.html

  2. 2.

  3. 3.

  4. 4.Harcourt Trade Publishers:

Peter Rushforth

A celebration dinner with friends after the launch of "Pinkerton's Sister"

Dave Chapman, Phil Brown, Colin Rendall, Viv Rendall

Leslie Chapman, Alma Stroud, Carol Stainsby, Peter, Molly Brown

Peter Rushforth"A Dead Language"

Published posthumously in Spring 2006

  1. The Times-Online:,,23109-2122054,00.html

  2. The Guardian:,,1762912,00.html

HOMEPAGE for all of Phil and Molly's PicsAny 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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