In Memoriam

From a very young age I loved reading.

I’m not sure which happened first, but two of my most vivid childhood memories involve books. One was the excitement I felt on opening a large black metal box my parents gave me when I was six or seven and finding it chock-full of all sorts of wonderful hardbacks on subjects ranging from science to history. Two in particular captivated me: an illustrated guide to the age of the dinosaurs and a collection of Greek myths – Theseus and the Minotaur was my favourite. Meanwhile, an early 20th century popular science book provided the answers to fascinating questions that I’d never myself thought of asking. Why is the sky blue, for instance? Or why can’t an insect fly into the pupil of your eye?

The thrill of exploring that treasure trove was matched only by my first visit to the John Mackintosh Hall library. Never had I seen so many books under one roof! It took me ages to choose just one and I eventually settled on The Arabian Nights. I was hooked, and would be a regular Saturday morning library goer for years.

Thursday is a nondescript sort of day, but it was special for me: the comics arrived. I’d collect mine after school from a kiosk on the Main Street side of the Piazza. The Beano and the Dandy at first, Eagle and Tiger when I was older. At Christmas my aunts would have to compare notes to make sure they each got me a different Annual, which was what I’d invariably ask for.

Object of desire

As my sixth birthday approached I learnt that my grandma’s present was a children’s encyclopedia I’d had my wishful eye on for ages. What’s more, the coveted tome was already at home somewhere.

Well, I found it!

For the next few weeks when no one was looking I would take the book out, avidly read an entry or two, and return it to its would-be hiding place before anyone noticed. I reckon by the time I legitimately opened it I must have been familiar with half the encyclopedia’s contents.

In a convoluted way this brings me to what I really wanted to say this week.

No one ever did more to nurture my love of literature and English in general than Derek Panayotti, who died late last year. As my ‘O’ Level teacher he succeeded in making me properly understand the rules of grammar, so casually derided by some educationalists these days, and introduced me to the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and Eliot. Sadly Derek fell ill soon afterwards and my classmates and I were deprived of his continuing guidance at ‘A’ Level.

One of the teachers who stepped into the breach was Charles Durante. In an obituary in this newspaper he said his late friend and colleague acquired an unrivalled knowledge of English literature, and described him as generous, gentlemanly and unassuming. I agree with his every word, and would only add that, to me, Derek Panayotti was inspirational.