Arthur F. Powell, OBE

Memorial Celebration, 14th March 2009

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Professor Edgardo Tito Saronne
Professor Edgardo Tito Saronne

Professor Edgardo Tito Saronne

First of all, let me apologize for my English, which is not up to Runnymede standard. Moreover, I am terrified by official speeches: I will therefore simply relate informally a few episodes which concern our common friend. Nothing sad about him.

On my desk, in the house where I live, in Italy, I have three snapshots: one of Arthur Powell in a formal suit, holding his top hat in one hand and his decoration in the other hand; another photo shows Arthur shaking hands with the Queen; the third photo shows a close-up of Arthur and me, talking together and smiling. The connection among the three pictures is evident, but more than one of my visitors asked me whether I am really acquainted with Elizabeth II!

Arthur had the opportunity to meet my first late wife a couple of times and to get to know her fairly well. Some of you may know that he had been working in Italy during several summers, planning and delivering English courses for the Italian radio broadcasting. It was during one of his visits to my country, that Laila and I met him in Genoa and he invited us to have lunch together in a small village along the coast –right on the beach. At the time, Laila and I had had some difficulties because of what I would call “induced jealousy”. We were staying with my parents, who had a foreigner as a paying guest. This young man had been courting my wife (who was an exotic beauty) in what I thought to be a rather innocent way. Besides, I blindly trusted Laila. My mother, however, thought that I should act “manly”in the Italian way: jealousy as a social duty. In order to appease my mother, I forced myself to explain the situation first to the young man and then to my wife –which created a certain tension among the three of us. Although Arthur did not know anything of all this, he immediately understood the situation and acted as a mediating angel between Laila and me. It turned out that he knew that foreign young man. A few weeks later Arthur wrote me a letter from Spain explaining that he (the young man) thought I did not care enough about my wife and he had wanted to be provocative towards me. In any case –Arthur reassured me– the young man was almost certainly gay! I believe that Arthur liked my wife very much. Recently, one of his sons reported that he saw Arthur crying only once in life: when Laila died in a car crash.

Although we had met in Naples, we actually became friends when we all (Arthur & Julia and I) moved to the north of Italy. Their first son was about two and Julia was expecting her second baby –what everybody called then “la Paloma” and turned out to be Charles! Because Julia was feeling very tired, Arthur and I went on frequent walks in the surrounding gardens with little Frank Manolo. If he fell asleep (which happened normally) we had a chance to talk about politics, philosophy and religion. I was then very shy, so it was mainly Arthur to do the talking and I used to listen and learn. At times he would talk about his own life experience. In spite of our very different social origin, I decided that he would be my living model. I admired him very much and very much wanted to be like him. I even decided that I would become a teacher of Italian abroad and I would marry a foreigner –which I did! Julia thought that it was unrealistic to start a career as a teacher of Italian abroad, but the burning desire to emulate my friend helped me. At the time I was a Catholic and a believer. Arthur made an agnostic of me. He lent me his personal copy of Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Thought. Above all, Arthur taught me to think with my own head.

My first memory of Arthur goes back to Naples, when he was at first a teacher and then the headmaster in a small school of English called the English Institute, of which his wife Julia was the secretary. He was tall, thin, light and agile. He had long thin English hair. At the time he still used to dress in a dark British-fashioned suit, completed by a waistcoat of the same type and colour. Julia was at the same time affectionate and somewhat authoritative towards him. Once –I remember– he was at the bottom of a corridor talking to some students and I was talking to Julia by the school office. For some reason she called him,“Cielo!”, and immediately he ran up to us, almost dancing and ending his run with a little slide, like boys do.

He was about as tall as I am, but in spite of that I felt as if he was much taller. It took me a long time to overcome this sort of awe I felt in relation to him –but this was my exclusive problem. He was kind and gentle, always smiling with his eyes and only slightly with his mouth.

Arthur was my teacher of English. As I said, I was very shy (I still am a bit – too late to change!). In the same classroom there was a Neapolitan young man, exuberant, manly, extroverted. He spoke English with a terrible accent and he made a lot of mistakes, but he always had an answer to any question posed by Arthur. Once I must have said I envied him. “Envy him?” said Arthur “Bold at thirty?”. At times he was lapidary. Some time later he confessed he had been attracted by my “reserved, ascetic, bearded personality” (his own words).

Arthur as a teacher was calm and pleasing, always kind in listening to questions and objections, always precise in giving answers, never abrupt or ironical. His arms were so long that he could write on the blackboard without standing up from his chair. He was so relaxed that one day his wedding ring (with which he was evidently playing) fell on the floor and rolled all over through the classroom till it stopped in the opposite corner.

Because of the respect I felt for Arthur, I would never have dared being friendly to him –or dream to be his friend– if it were not for Julia. Friendship between Julia and I was immediate, because of her being a woman, extremely friendly and frank. Also because she talks laughing, with a very pleasant Spanish accent. It was exclusively through her that Arthur and I became friends. As far as I am concerned, he was –he is– my best friend ever.

Julia was authoritative to everybody, although everybody liked her. One day she suddenly decided that I should act as a character in a short play. I was terrified at the mere idea of such a thing. Moreover, I soon discovered that my partner-to-be in the play (I should be Jack while she was Jill) was the most attractive girl in the school, a red-haired green-eyed beauty, very Neapolitan in character, cheeky and with a constant impulse to laugh at everything. Julia said I couldn’t possibly refuse. I had a try, but I was soon discouraged and practically abandoned the scene. Julia had Arthur invite me home for lunch. The play script was lying there on the sitting room table, waiting for me. Jill also came to have lunch with us. Arthur call me by Christian name for the first time and said I shouldn’t be so silly to let the play down. They were all nice to me. It was the dawn of my self-confidence and the beginning of our friendship. The play – thanks to Julia’s direction –was a success.

Together with some good results in my academic studies, my friendship with the Powells marked –as I said– the beginning of my self-confidence. I must say that thanks to them I began to grow up.

At the time Julia was expecting her first baby, Frank Manolo. I was at the church when Manolo was christened. His god-father was a Catholic Englishman of Italian origin, a very kind-hearted and cultured man. “I am sure” said Arthur “that he will never interfere with the lay education I intend to give my son... However, had he not been chosen as a god-father quite some time ago, I would have liked you to be in this role...” A couple of years later I was in Madrid the god-father of “la Paloma”, i.e. Charles Tito Powell.

I met the Powells in the late fifties. Beginning with 1960 our friendship was for the most part epistolary. (The Powells settled down in Spain and I –after Charles’ birth and christening– left for Egypt, where I spent several years.) I still have all Arthur’s letters and remember most of what I wrote to him. I remember writing once to him that I considered our lives as “moving on parallel orbits”. I should have said that I was his satellite. I wanted to be like him in everything –excepting, of course, our different nationality and social origin.

I touched this fact with my finger when I met Arthur’s father during one of my long stays in England. Strangely enough, Mr. Frank Powell senior, did not intimidate me as much as did (in the beginning) his son. He was a magistrate and used to take me to court with him at King’s Cross. He had been very strict with Arthur and probably wanted to make up for this, being kind to his son’s good friend. He often invited me to lunch and once he took me home to meet his third wife. I must mention that at the time I was staying with a cockney family, some very good people and eventually friends of mine for life. When I entered the garden of Mr. Powell’s house, a party was going on. Mr. Powell formally introduced me to his wife and to everybody else as “Arthur’s friend”. I bowed slightly and said... “Cheerio!”

While I was in England, the Powells went to visit my family in a small town not far from Milan. Given the importance of the characters (especially Arthur, whom my mother had met in Milan and who had greatly impressed her for his distinguished look and ways), my father, who was an excellent cook, prepared for them a very special meal, starting the preparation even the day before. I had warned my family (i.e. my parents, my aunt who was living with them, my sister and her fiancee) that English people are always very punctual, so that they should make sure everything was ready in time. At one o’ clock the dinner was on the table, ready to be served, while all the family was sitting in the sittingroom, anxiously waiting for the guests. At one thirty, my father began to be nervous. No trace of the Powells. At two o’clock, my sister’s fiancee –who is very much attached to habits– began to be hungry and ate some chips and salted biscuits. My father objected to English punctuality, but my mother reminded him that Mrs. Powell was Spanish. At three o’clock a phone call came at last: the Powells had mistakenly gone to Torino (150 km from Milan), catching a fast train which did not stop in Novara (our hometown). Of course Julia blamed it all on Arthur, who did not pay attention to terrestrial events. At last, shortly past four o’clock they arrived by taxi. Arthur, all in grey with a hard grey hat, was holding Frank Manolo fast asleep in his harms. Julia was looking very pretty in a pink dress and was smiling at last. Everybody (except my sister’s fiancee who was no longer hungry) greatly enjoyed the dinner and everybody liked everybody else, although Arthur found my father “un poco pesado”.

I was back in Italy when the Powells definitely moved to Spain. Separation was sad for everybody. By the way, I had applied for a teaching job in Cairo, Egypt, and I was waiting for an answer. The perspective of a journey to the East was the only factor that soothed pain for my friends’ departure. Anyway, it was a dramatic departure. I accompanied them to the airport and tried to be useful in little menial jobs, such as seeing after the suitcases: in fact Julia, was waiting for her second baby and Arthur was quite busy with “terrestrial” worries, such as checking timetables, counting money, verify that passports were in order and the like. All of a sudden, “Alitalia” (our glorious air company) announced that the flight to Madrid was cancelled, probably because of some strike or a failure in the plane engine. Julia, who at the time, was quite depressed because of her life in Milan, fell into despair. She started crying and urging Arthur to find a solution. Arthur moved around in all directions looking very pale and quite uncertain about what to do. Finally, he went to a telephone box. I followed him and saw him placing his briefcase on the ground, then repeatedly and nervously dial a number and finally getting as angry as an Englishman can get. He then came out of the box and said triumphantly: “I got it! We are leaving in twenty minutes with British Airways!...” When they were about to pass the checkin, Arthur realized he had lost his briefcase. You can imagine Julia’s reaction. Arthur came back running and I started running behind him, without really knowing what to do. Fortunately a policeman had found the briefcase. At first, though, he refused to hand it back to Arthur, because he wanted him to identify himself first. “But my papers are in the briefcase!” said Arthur in despair. At that moment a shout came from Julia: “Cielo, the plane is leaving! Hurry-up!” The policeman then surrended. Arthur seized his briefcase and reached Julia running. We didn’t even have the time to say good-bye: Julia kept on crying. Arthur had taken little Manolo in his arms and was trying to soothe Julia. At the last minute – when they were already behind the barrier, Julia turned back and said angrily: “Maledetta Alitalia!” unwillingly confounding the name of our glorious air company with the name of my country. The policeman looked watchful. “We could have been arrested” wrote Arthur a few days later “for oltraggio alla nazione!...

Strange as it might seem, Arthur introduced me to bull-fight. Being an Italian, I was very prejudiced about it. As Julia once said, “gli italiani tengono per il toro”! Besides, my father being very enthusiastic about bull-fight (he had seen illegal corridas in Biarritz and San Sebastian), I was naturally against it. Moreover, having lived in England for quite a while, I was influenced by British animalism. In 1960, while I was in Madrid waiting for Charles Powell’s birth, Arthur bought me a ticket for the bull-fight. It was a horrible experience, the six bulls being mansos and the corrida being a real butchery. “Never again”, I thought. However, in that period the famous Dominguín reappeared on the bull-fight scene after years of absence. In Madrid the expectation was great. Arthur, again, insisted that I should give bull-fight another chance. This time what I saw was an absolute triumph: death mixed with bravery, grace and real art. Ever since, I have watched dozens of bull-fights. Arthur explained me everything useful to understand it, suggested good literature about it (included Hemingway), signaled good arenas and good toreros in the surroundings. He made me into a bull-fight fan. Liking or disliking the corrida might be questionable: it is probably as cruel as eating lamb or keeping a bird in a cage. What is important here is that Arthur taught me to subordinate judgement to knowledge and understanding. Most people who condemn this “Spanish cruelty” do not know anything about its meaning and rules. As I said a little while ago, Arthur taught me to think with my own head.

While I was in Prague (I believe in 1966) I offered to translate into Italian a book by Arthur concerning the theory of teaching English as a foreign language. The book, which had still no title in the original, was issued in Milan in 1967 (the year of Prague Spring) with the title Didattica della lingua inglese, Metodología dell’insegnamento linguistico. Arthur sent me a printed copy of it with the following dedication:

I hope this book is worthy of the high opinion you have of it – and thanks again for your help, not only in putting it into Italian, but encouraging me when most I needed encouragement.
Your friend, Arthur – Madrid, 1 marzo, 1967

Arthur Powell – my model – also needed encouragement! I had never thought of that, but, I guess, that was his human side. Not only he was great, but he was humble, too.

Somebody might object that, if Arthur’s life and mine were so “parallel”, I should have achieved something of what he has – namely a decoration by the Italian President if not of the Queen! True. I already mentioned that although Arthur and I were about the same size, I always felt he was about a foot taller than I am. This attitude of mine should really mean something.

There are other reasons for our difference. Up to a certain point in my life I kept on stepping in Arthur’s footprints: I became a teacher of Italian abroad and a theoretical linguist, I married a foreinger (actually I married two, one after the other), travelled the world, moved in the same environments, learned the same languages. However, our nationality and social origin were different – as it is now clear to everybody here. Also at one point the course of my life changed suddenly: my beloved Egyptian wife died in a car accident and I remained alone with my child – aged four – who had survived the crash. I had to leave the US, where I was making my career, and had to start all over again. Being forced to go back to Italy, put me on a different, oblique orbit. I ended up as a Slavonic philologist and now I have even retired. Am I trying to find excuses for my limited success? No, I am not. My life has been a success in the sense that I have always done (I am referring to my work) what I liked to do, with curiosity and passion. I still do. In this sense, Arthur has influenced me during all my life. It was him who showed me the way and convinced me that happiness is mainly doing what intrigues us, what gives us the opportunity to learn and understand more. How many times I thanked him mentally for guiding me into this direction! I still do, now, because I owe him so much.

O Mio Babbino Caro
by Giacomo Puccini
Sung by Sarah Nicholson

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