24 April 2018
A Tribute to Dr Martin Hall 1946-2018
The following tribute was written by Martin's colleague Professor Anne Green and was read at his funeral on April 24th, 2018.
Although I had occasionally met Martin at various University of London board meetings in the 1970s, I didn’t get to know him properly until I joined the staff of King’s College French Department in 1984. Martin had been at King’s for a number of years by then, and with his wonderful warmth and kindness he immediately made me feel welcome and at home, just as he welcomed subsequent newcomers to the department, and soon turned us from work colleagues into lifelong friends. Indeed, if King’s French department has the reputation of being a harmonious and stimulating and happy place — not something that can be said of many university departments — this is largely due to Martin’s example and to his lasting influence on everyone he worked with.
He was a wonderful combination of erudition and fun. Although his teaching and academic research focused mainly on 18th century writers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, his expertise went far beyond the French 18th century. The breadth of his knowledge was extraordinary — he was immensely widely read, deeply interested in ideas, and he had a sharply critical eye. All of us in the department benefited from his perceptive insights into our own research areas - from his ability to take a sideways look at a subject and set us off on new and interesting tracks. But he wore his erudition lightly. Martin was incapable of being pompous or boring. Conversations with him were always a delight, often peppered with obscure and entertaining details drawn from his vast store of culture, and always accompanied by that characteristic twinkle and beaming smile.
His students, too, benefited not only from his teaching and research on 17th and 18th century French literature and from his perfect command of French, but from exposure to the great range of his cultural reference. But perhaps above all, they benefited from his genuine interest in them as individuals. They always seemed to emerge from his office smiling — as did we all. He was particularly wonderful with problem students who had often exhausted the patience of everyone else. He would listen to them, and cajole them, and nurse them along, and plead for them, and there must be many, many former students all over the world who owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
As a colleague, Martin was truly inspirational — very intelligent, original and independent-minded, and with a quietly subversive streak when faced with unwelcome institutional hoops to jump through. Although he could occasionally be — to use one of his favourite words — ‘curmudgeonly’, it was usually for good reason, and I must say I have never known anyone be curmudgeonly with such charm. But he was also warm, generous, sensitive, kind and funny, and full of what our old friend and colleague Bernard Howells has called ‘pugnacious vivacity’. He was someone who cheered us all up just by being there. In a word, Martin was life-enhancing, and we all loved him.
I want to end by reading a poem that Martin really liked, and, I think, identified with. It is by the 17th-century French poet, Saint-Amant, and he and Craig Moyes included it in a course on 17th and 18th century French poetry that they taught together. The title, ‘Le Paresseux’, translates into English as ‘the lazy (or idle) man’ — which Martin was certainly not. But here ‘Le Paresseux’ means something rather different, without those negative connotations. As Craig says, it refers to ‘a properly classical ‘otium’ all too rare in today’s university, and it reflects Martin’s warm literary sensitivity and wonderful lack of ‘busyness’. So here, for Martin, is ‘Le Paresseux’:
Accablé de paresse et de mélancolie,
Je rêve dans un lit où je suis fagoté,
Comme un lièvre sans os qui dort dans un pâté,
Ou comme un Don Quichotte en sa morne folie.
Là, sans me soucier des guerres d’Italie,
Du comte Palatin, ni de sa royauté,
Je consacre un bel hymne à cette oisiveté
Où mon âme en langueur est comme ensevelie.
Je trouve ce plaisir si doux et si charmant,
Que je crois que les biens me viendront en dormant,
Puisque je vois déjà s’en enfler ma bedaine,
Et hais tant le travail, que, les yeux entrouverts,
Une main hors des draps, cher Baudoin, à peine
Ai-je pu me résoudre à t’écrire ces vers.
Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant (1594-1661)
(Aug 2022 - The Department of French is now the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures)