by Fred Bilson
In the 1950s, Gerry was an RAF officer, and one night found himself in a Cambridge pub, where he got talking to a chap who suggested he go on to a party in one of the colleges. “Wouldn’t they mind?” “No, just pick up a bottle of cider, go to St John’s and ask for I6.” (Gerry loved the fact that Cambridge colleges had staircases. It reminded him of the Gorbals.)
So ten minutes later he knocked on the door of I6. As I was nearest, I opened it and so for the first time met this happy, cheerful outgoing man whose company could be as exhilarating as an Edith Piaf song.
There’s a clue to his character in this tale. Of course people liked Gerry; anyone who met him at his best and didn’t like him hadn’t cracked the code of being a human being. More to the point he was able to like people. He would go into a pub, talk to a complete stranger and end up with a friend. The other characteristic is his generosity; he brought two bottles of cider not one. Not that he was naďve. In after years, talking about this incident, he went into Dr Finlay mode, “Aye, I mind it fine. As soon as I got through the door, someone took the bottles and I never saw them again.”
He was an immensely clubbable man. Often, when a group of us s at down in a pub with our first drink he would say, like St Peter at the Transfiguration, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” It was not a blasphemy, it was a grace. His novel ends with a great party at which the hero meets all the people he has ever known, who have come together to be with him. That, of course, is heaven.
Gerry loved to encounter wit. He told the tale of a friend in a lecture when he was doing his teacher training. Supposing he wasn’t attending, the lecturer said, “What is the chief quality a teacher needs? Can you favour us with your view, Mr Smith?” Without missing the beat his friend replied, “Disponability.” He was right, by the way, and it is something Gerry had- the ability to impose order; in his teaching, in his running the library, in his productions of school plays.
HCS produced a run of such encounters with wit; Brian Williams coming into the staff room the day after Julius Caesar opened and crying “Great Rome shall suck/ Reviving coffee”; sitting just in front of Tony Beavan in assembly during one of Dr Simpson’s think-alouds while Tony muttered the key mantras of the Simpson world a few seconds before the good doctor reached for them. “Oxbridge stakes…shortie coaties…cosmopolitan elements”; or the day when Gerry came in to the staff room full of joy. He had just asked his sixth form how they would characterise some incident in Shakespeare’s Othello, and the brilliant Brian Gilbert replied “I should call it a coup de theatre.” “With sixth formers like that, how can you miss?” Gerry asked.
Before turning to teaching, Gerry had worked for Guinness in Glasgow. His job entailed touring the city in his car and sampling the brew at each pub on his list to make sure it was well kept. Many a man would have paid Guinness for that job. Gerry gave it up, because it was too soft and he wanted to do more with his life. He had iron principles; he became an early vegetarian and had a generous socialism based on his Scots experience (“Class conscious we air, class conscious we’ll be/ Till our fits on the nicks o the bourgeoisie.”)
He was a Catholic of David Lodge’s generation. Lodge said they had made an existential bargain with God; they would promise to keep certain rules, and God would promise to exist. And God didn’t keep his part of the bargain. I remember Gerry telling me about his loss of faith- we were invigilating together in the Hall. He was out of reach to me, though I was then devout. Catholicism was a package. You could have it all, or you could have none of it.
In his later life there were great black patches, and his health was never first rate. More than most, he owed a great deal to the love and support of his wife and son, Patty and John.
I’m glad so many people on the site are remembering him with affection, as I do.
Gerry, this is one I never wanted to write.
Fred Bilson, August 2005