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Tom ArieFrom: The October 2004 Commemoration
Peter is the most vividly remembered, and the most mourned of my oldest friends. His originality, and his loveable warm personality is vivid still now for us all.
I have lately been re-reading those letters and writings of his that I have. The letters are moving and funny, and one hears his voice; his serious writings are brilliantly argued – and when he wrote about my own field of psychiatry, and Naomi’s, there is a mastery of the subject and of his sources which echoes his lightly worn brilliance in our classics days of Homer and Virgil.
I remember his jokes, his drawings, the way he shared his enthusiasms. One of these was Eliot’s Four Quartets, which he loved. He was usually hard-up; and he could be wonderfully absent minded. For instance, he owned no overcoat (this was before the days of anoraks and parkas). This worried me more than it seemed to worry Peter. But one winter’s day – the day his grant cheque arrived - I persuaded him to let me steer him to a surplus store in Queen Street to buy himself a duffel coat. Off we went, and he came away with his fine warm coat. But within a couple of weeks he had managed to lose it!
Petsk is surely also the only man ever who tried to darn his socks with plastic cloth, squeezed out of a tube, then patted down on his heel. It didn’t work, but it was a good idea.
Our political paths diverged; he took his firm path, whereas I was the left-leaning dissenter and non-joiner that I have remained. It wouldn’t be true to say that this had no effect on our friendship – it inevitably did, but mainly I think as regards the actual amount of time we spent together, for Peter’s strong friendships, and his party membership took up much of his time. Also, our paths diverged from our shared classics, his to psychology, mine to medicine.
The Slansky trials in Prague of late 1952 had put some questions between us; nonetheless Peter showed a characteristic ability to see my point of view too. We had to agree to differ – but the generosity of the letter which he later wrote me after the watershed of Hungary more than made up for that.
It was a friendship that, picked up at intervals, remained fresh and easy whenever, often after quite long gaps, we met, as we did almost up to the end.( The earlier letters, alas, often refer to the prohibitive expense of train fares to and from the North.) We Aldermarched together, and my parents’ home in Reading was a convenient overnight pad for Aldermarston. Much later Eleanor and I visited him and Edie and the children when he was working as a psychologist at Grendon prison (a grim experience for me, lightened only by watching him being his easy self with prisoners, dealing with them as if they were friends or colleagues.)
One can’t keep all letters from friends, but I tried to keep letters from Peter. I have inscriptions in books he gave me, and his wonderful funny pictures. In his writing he set a model of style which was unmatchable, in precision and economy of phrase, in the use of sources, in the wit and the honesty – and above all the use of English. I think he has often been a model for me in my writing – an unmatchable model, though.
Two anecdotes to finish. Peter and I once wrote a spoof poem together, each of us composing alternate lines. It took us about 10 minutes, and I have it still. The poem was immediately accepted for publication by the Oxford poetry magazine to which we naughtily sent it, though we funked out at the last minute, and owned up. The editor was unfazed and said we had written a good poem despite ourselves!
Almost finally - and not everyone, as the saying goes, knows this - I have the letter in which he recounts how at his second wedding the officiating Sufi cleric had some trouble with Peter’s second name, Harold. So he finally settled for addressing Peter as ‘Harold Wilson’.
I have pinned up some pictures, by him and of him. My time is up, so here to finish are some lines from a 1963 letter about his children:
‘Our little boy, Paul’ he writes, ‘is getting on for eighteen months now, and at last manageable. In fact, he is rather a treat. He is one of those chubby little boys with long blond locks and ringlets, which we are promising to cut off for the summer as soon as we have him photographed. Michèle is a scrumptious child, who knows the difference between a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros, sometimes at least, and is full of other interesting items…’