Robert Giddings, writer and academic, and regular contributor to Tribune for 30 years, has died at the age of 76. He was a passionate advocate of access for all to higher education, a devout Dickensian, and was loved and respected for his tireless work as an author, editor, teacher, broadcaster and agitator.
Alan Chedzoy, author of A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton and The People’s Poet: William Barnes of Dorset, said: “Bob’s academic career was a triumph over adversity. As a child, he was struck down by polio and spent years strapped to a metal frame in an attempt to straighten out his body. On the assumption, presumably, that disabled people must be mentally retarded, for a time he was restricted in the classroom to working wicker baskets. It was a typing coach who eventually spotted his academic potential and encouraged him, so that eventually he became Professor of English at Bournemouth University. As a colleague, I well remember Bob, with a pile of books on his lap, steering his wheelchair round all sorts of obstacles to get to his classroom on time. These were not the only obstacles that he met, and his manifest straightforwardness and humanity did not always receive support from his more ambitious and Machiavellian colleagues.”
Robert Giddings was born, the youngest of four children, in Worcester on June 29 1935. His father was a cabinet-maker, his mother a painter of pottery, and they moved to Bath when he was three months old; he spent most of the rest of his life in the south-west of England.
Bob contracted polio at 10, was confined to hospital until he was 18 and during that time had no formal schooling. But he loved reading – including Great Expectations at the age of 11 – and listening to music – he told friends: “I got my education from the BBC” – and, although he was effectively written off by the system – he did a stint of basket weaving as part of his rehabilitation – a teacher, when he went on a secretarial course to learn shorthand and typing, suggested he do some O levels. He took six, including Latin, and two A levels at Bristol Technical College which enabled him to read English and German at Bristol University before doing a PhD at Keele.
Bob became a teacher, first at an elementary school in Bristol and then at a private school in West Coker, Somerset – a dreadful place he memorably describes in his engaging autobiography You Should See Me in Pyjamas (1981) – which was where he met his wife, Marie, in 1962. He moved to Bath Technical College in 1964 and then, in 1982, to what became Bournemouth University, first at Weymouth and then, in 1986, at the main campus which is actually in Poole. He began by teaching English and ended up as Professor Emeritus in the School of Media, Arts and Communication.
He wrote more than 20 books including The Tradition of Smollett (1967); The Changing World of Charles Dickens (1983); Mark Twain: A Sumptuous Variety (1985); The War Poets 1914-1918 (1988); The Author, the Book and the Reader (1991); Imperial Echoes (1995); JRR Tolkien: The Shores of Middle-Earth (1981) with Elizabeth Holland; Who Was Really Who in Fiction (1987) with Alan Bold; The Classic Serial on Television and Radio (1999) with Keith Selby and From Page to Screen (2000) with Erica Sheen.
More recently, he edited a series of Crime Classics for Atlantic Books, affordable new editions with informative introductions to books such as The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton and, a personal favourite, Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
He was a contributor to programmes such as Late Night Line Up, The Late Show and Does He Take Sugar? and wrote for The Listener, the New Statesman, New Society, The Guardian and The Observer as well as Tribune.
Dr Chedzoy said: “Bob gallantly fought his corner to maintain academic English studies in the face of what he regarded as increasingly Philistine tendencies. He could be scathingly funny about these: ‘The moronisation goes on apace’ he would announce in sepulchral tones. As readers of reviews in Tribune will know, his range of knowledge was formidable, taking in classical music, and wide fields of 19th and 20th century literature, but especially Dickens, on whose work, as presented in the media, he was a foremost authority. Students loved him. As he never pulled academic rank, he was always ‘Bob’ to them. And so many responded to his enthusiasm for great literature.
“A very decent man, long-suffering, courageous and a life-long socialist, Bob Giddings always maintained that the many students coming into higher education, from underprivileged backgrounds, had just as much right to share in the cultural heritage of our country.”
He is survived by Marie and her son Jim from a previous marriage. Their son Giles died in a motor accident at the age of 38.
Marie said she will miss Bob “whizzing about the kitchen in his wheelchair, cooking” and “playing Wagner, very, very loud”. At Tribune, we will miss his elegant, intelligent reviews of classical music, brass bands and books as much as his frequent telephone calls, enthusing about a new book, radio or televions progamme, or CD and railing against the iniquities of the Conservative-led coalition.