Text size
-A +A


Vale Tom Marshall: 1926-2012  

By Dr Christina Hill

I first met Tom nine years ago when I took retirement from my job as a university lecturer and volunteered as a tutor for U3A Melbourne City.  Tom was in my first class starting in March in 2003.

Unrealistically expecting class members to read a long book a week, my original enrolment of twelve or so soon dwindled to about four. Tom, however, could take the unreasonable pace I was setting and never missed a class. Studying the C19th English novel that year, Tom was unabashed by received critical opinion and quite trenchantly expressed his dislike of the narrowly gentrified world of Jane Austen. But he loved the Brontes, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Trollope and Thomas Hardy. He quickly revealed himself to be a font of information about the various Reform Bills and the social conditions of C19th England.

In the ad hoc accounts of our lives sometimes elicited by literary discussion, it became clear that Tom was a proudly working-class man with a strong sense of history, including his own. Indeed, some of his early childhood memories of the economic depression in England in the 1930s were harrowing.  After coming to Australia as a ‘ten pound pom’ he worked as a fitter and turner on the wharves. He was a unionist of course and became a shop steward. But although he enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellows, in many ways for Tom this was a lonely masculine world. He hungered for intellectual talk. He had not had the benefit of higher formal education but, driven by intellectual curiosity and voracious independent reading, he had educated himself; he was a genuine autodidact. Thus, in retirement, the courses of the University of the Third Age filled this void. He sometimes said this was the happiest time of his life. Certainly, what he took from his classes he gave back tenfold because his beautiful fluency as an oral reader and astute critical judgement made him a shining star in our discussions.

But he refused to be romanticised and hated to be called an intellectual. Occasionally, when this was suggested, he always brushed it aside and insisted that he was a ‘worker.’ The Greek language –amazingly, he learned Greek – and classical Greek literature were the passion of his life. To hear Tom reflecting upon the works of C5th BCE playwright Aeschylus and the
Oresteia was, for me, truly humbling.

But lest I seem to be making Tom into a saint I must say that he was no passive shrinking violet. When still in good health, he could be quite assertive, even irascible. Although he was never disrespectful, he was not afraid to give me an argument if he disagreed with me. Nonetheless, he was always immensely appreciative of what I was doing in the class.

Tom’s capacity for loyal friendship was one of his great gifts (in particular with Georgie, Peter, Ilse and Kate) and he was much loved by the literature class. Indeed, he was the heart of it in some ways and we miss him; I feel his absence keenly every Wednesday. I know he would have had so much to contribute to this year’s analysis of Russian literature and history. Over the last three months, as Tom’s life was coming to an end, I was moved by the patience and dignity with which he accepted his situation. It was not an easy time but his stoicism was unflagging; he never complained.

Vale dear Tom, you were an extraordinary man and your friendship meant a great deal to me. I want to express my own condolences and those of the class to your wife Elizabeth and to your family. In particular, our sympathy goes to your beloved son Bill who took such wonderful care of his father in his illness. 

I’ll conclude with the  opening stanza of the poet T.S. Eliot’s Preludes, something Tom asked me to read to him a couple of weeks ago:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.