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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

In Memoriam Andrew Shaw: mentor, idol, and friend

It is late June 2006, and a stunning, wide-skied Lincolnshire afternoon. I have just graduated, and alongside a few friends from Cambridge, many generations of the Kohut and Cullum family are on deckchairs and benches in our newly-gazebo-ed garden for my 21st birthday barbeque. A Lincolnshire barbecue has a very particular scent: pig-manure on the fields mixed with the burnished herb and spice blend of an over-cooked sausage. 

Our garden was very long, and impracticably thin. Horse stables running along the right, and the wall of our neighbour’s bungalow on the left, rather pompously built up higher than our own house. This patch of grass  didn’t ever fully perform the function of a garden in the ‘English Country’ sense. Sheep ran through it in a bid for freedom at least once each month; my sister and I failed to persuade tennis balls to bounce on it to any practical height; it flooded whenever the rains came for longer than ten minutes (causing my mother near heart-attack-inducing stress before the house was sold). It was also often a muddy drive-way leading up a short bank to our fields at the rear, with ‘uninterrupted views out to the Wolds’ (Estate Agent Brochure, 2007-2009). On this afternoon, owing to my widespread popularity and expansive birthday guest list, cars were driving across the garden at regular intervals, and parking in the field.

My Grandmother and her sisters (all three alike in look, temperament, and a predilection to think themselves better than most) are lined up on a bench facing the garden-cum-drive, no doubt positioned specifically to pass judgement on those arriving. At about half past two (I am playing some kind of racket and ball game with a cousin’s son) I hear the sound of a car skidding too fast down the gravel portion of the drive by the house. Crossing the garden at speed is a bright blue open top convertible with my former music teacher, and dear friend Andrew in the driver’s seat, shirtless, hair spiked with blonde highlights, wearing aviator-sunglasses, an array of neck-ware, tight jeans, and with a perfectly even, deep brown tan, waving with flamboyant abandon as he drives. Grandma and her sisters have faces that betrayed a mixture of shock, awe, and confused lust.

It is one of my fondest memories of Andrew, bulldozing into people’s lives with an unashamed declaration of who he was.

Throughout these two months of Andrew’s illness, many of his former students have been speaking of how much he touched their lives. Like others, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the possible, now actual loss of someone who was so fundamental in shaping who I am: my tastes, my talents, my attitudes. I wrote a blog up here about being as much oneself as possible at all times, so that achievements can be measured alongside who you are truly. I now realise that this was something I learned from Andrew.

As a student of Andrew’s, I was in awe of him. His manner of teaching was that of a musician and music lover: we’d listen and he’d talk. During those four years, music became a history of shattering moments: when Bach completed his 48 Preludes and Fugues and western harmony was set; the bass entry in the first performance of Beethoven 9; the first resolution of the Tristan Chord in performance; the riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, the poor amateurs of Leeds Festival Chorus trying to sing Belshazzar’s Feast; the opening of the newly restored Coventry Cathedral alongside Britten’s sublime, subversive War Requiem.

But for Andrew, music was much more than simply a series of great works, and so too for his students. It was about the live, real performance and experience of some of the world’s greatest noises. It is here that is influence is most keenly felt, day-to-day, amongst many generations of Lincolnshire schoolchildren, and where his loss will be most hard to bear for generations to come. I find it tough even writing about my experience on stage at school, and Andrew’s role in that part of my life. In those hours inside and outside of classrooms, in rehearsal rooms, in churches, on stage, I learned to understand how music and theatre get inside your muscles and sinews, works of art becoming absolutely tuned to your sense of self, part of what makes you tick as you walk around in this flawed, clunky, ugly, real world.

I consider myself so lucky to have had a relationship with Andrew that developed from student to friend as soon as I left King Edward. When I fell unrequitedly in love after about 45 minutes of being at University, he was the first person I called for advice (he’d been there before, got the t-shirt, etc).

It has been such a tremendous privilege to join him as a staff member on music tours to Belgium, to see for myself him continuing to guide and shape the values of young people as he had done for me. And goodness me, did we have fun.

I recently told Andrew that almost all of my life’s greatest experiences can be traced directly back to his influence or guidance. He scoffed, as you’d expect (for such a natural showman, he was unexpectedly modest at times). I don’t for a second think this will change now he’s gone. Whenever I sing, whenever I hear wonderful music, see a great opera, whenever I drink coffee with at least 2 inches of Grand Marnier in the bottom, it will be thanks to him.

One writes, that `Other friends remain,'
That `Loss is common to the race'—
And common is the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H


  1. Beautiful words. He sounds like an incredible teacher and friend.

  2. Fantastic writing. I was a previous student of Andrew's and I couldn't agree more. I wouldn't have studied music at University if it wasn't for him. Amazing man.