Scholar Gypsy is a memoir that transports the reader back to an Oxford of the 1950s: a golden period in the history of the University, when society enjoyed relative stability in the post-war period, but was yet to undergo the radical social change of the 1960s.
Among a group of young men up at Oxford in the early fifties was Michael Collins Persse. Having made his way to the city from his family’s cattle station in Queensland, Australia, he first read History and then stayed on to read Theology, with the intention of joining the Anglican Church. In the event, he returned home and joined the staff at Geelong Grammar School in Corio in 1955, and his life’s work at the school continues today.
But during his time at Balliol, Michael forged a close – in his own words, “overwhelming” – friendship with Andrew Mills, a young English, Catholic Baronet with a brilliant, deeply spiritual and occasionally troubled mind. The two enjoyed the kind of intense platonic relationship that is perhaps unique to one’s student years – founded on a shared love of poetry, theatre, theology, travel, and the dazzling social life of Oxford at the time – until Andrew’s sudden and untimely death in a road accident at the age of 21.
This memoir, its title borrowed from a poem by another Balliol man, poet Matthew Arnold, shares Michael’s recollections of a life-changing friendship with Andrew, who has remained “always at heart, sometimes in mind” throughout the ensuing years. It’s a very personal account, and no doubt something of a cathartic exercise, written as the author turned 80 and felt the need to document one of the most important relationships of his life for posterity.
The book's style and structure is unconventional, gathering a collection of reminiscences and letters focused on one brief period, from 1953-55. Opening with a section written just six months after Andrew’s death, we learn how the two young men first met, cementing a friendship over a night-long conversation on matters of faith. What follows is based on long extracts from letters Michael sent back to his parents in Australia, which builds a picture of Andrew’s character and offers a fascinating insight into Oxford student life at the time.
Life at Balliol itself takes a starring role, which makes the book of particular interest to alumni. Indeed, at one point Michael remarks: “Balliol’s Back Quad in summer is prodigal with man’s art and God’s… Here may the stranger find something of the spirit of Pan, of Zuleika Dobson and Brideshead Revisited: an Oxford that does not die with trees, flowers, bowls, wit, laughter, on occasion a tortoise race, and ever a mixing of intrigue with higher things.”
It’s a reminder that our days at Oxford always seem golden when viewed through the mists of time, just as the legacies of those who die young and tragically are remembered with a particular poignancy. After his death, Andrew’s mother, Lady Mills, the novelist Mary Grace Ashton, compared her son’s friendship with Michael to that of Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, which was immortalised in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.
Michael’s own In Memoriam to Andrew has taken nearly 60 years to be completed and published, but while some of Michael and Andrew’s poetry is published in the book, it is a simple epitaph upon their friendship, written to his own parents in 1955 shortly after the accident, that is perhaps the most touching. “He was quite my best friend here – and in many ways meant more to me than any other friend ever has, simply because he gave himself so completely with all his gaiety, intelligence, charm, passionate love of God and poetry, and a thousand other things that made all others love him, not just me.”