Unlike Uncle Bill, Stalky, Tango, or Piggy, our English teacher, Neil Salmon, didn't have a nickname. He was respected and liked. He used to bike to school (and he’s still a non-driver). His wife, Joyce, would be seen at school functions with her hair trailing like the mane of Joan Baez.
When in class we were studying the ballad form, Neil brought in his reel-to-reel tape recorder (many masters had these) and played Joan Baez songs (like ‘the Lily of the West’).
It would be marvellous to visit him again after all this time. We called at 11:00 am. He met me at the door with a handshake. He looked a bit frail, but not bad. He’d had both legs dressed at the clinic that morning and walked stiffly. But he brought a tray of coffees into the front parlour all right, albeit with a stick. I was ready to help, but he could handle it.
Joyce came in using a walker. As she has Parkinson’s and we hadn’t seen her for some years I had expected a poor old thing, but she looked serene, and even young as she curled up in a deep armchair. Great clouds of grey hair. Joan, who doesn’t like grey hair showing, even clouds of it, admitted that it suited her.
Neil was as bright as ever in conversation. He gave me a copy of his book of poems, Influences. As we all chatted I looked through it on the sly, like, and saw that each piece of verse showed the incisiveness remembered from our days studying King Lear. There were domestic pieces and commentaries on music and art, as well as poems dealing with his travels, to Vienna and Leningrad, Tehran. The verses were full of his observations and insightful remarks. He explained that he tended to deal with tiny instances from life which in the context of a poem became, he hoped, significant.
In exchange for his book he accepted a copy of All the Red Brick Streets, and commented on the colourful cover picture.
'Thanks, Neil. I painted that baby.'
He said he had put a lot of his life into his book of poems. As he had sub-titled it ‘… and other pieces towards an autobiography’, some people had hailed it as the forerunner of a prose work. But, he said, he could never write an autobiography because nothing had ever happened to him. It was just: childhood; school; University of Cambridge; Northgate Grammar; retirement.
‘What about your service in the RAF? You could tell a tale or two there, I bet.’
He considered this with a smile and nodded briefly.
He’d told me on the phone that he’d had nothing to do with Northgate since he left. This had struck me as odd, and I had meant to ask him about that, but forgot. Because Northgate was where I had met him I had somehow always thought the school was a vital part of his being. It seemed though that for the latter part of his life he had coped admirably without it.