WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2007-05 > 1179657027
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [W-OBITS] BURCHNALL: Michael Langley Birchnall 6.mar,2007
Date: Sun, 20 May 2007 11:30:27 +0100
Last Updated: 2:26am BST 12/05/2007
Michael Burchnall, who has died aged 85, was for more than 30 years a
teacher of quite exceptional talents at Winchester.
Essentially a private person, Burchnall never sought to dazzle or impress,
or to buy reputation too cheaply among impressionable schoolboys. Rather, he
treated the instruction of the young almost as an agreeable hobby, to be
taken up and laid down as his mood and their response dictated. This
undynamic but wholly genuine approach yielded an enduring harvest, most of
all in English. Wykehamists introduced to poetry under Burchnall's tutelage
would be surprised to discover, perhaps years later, that they had been set
on a treasure hunt affording lifelong pleasure.
For Burchnall, underneath the camouflage of ordinariness, possessed the most
brilliant intellect available at Winchester. Not only was he extraordinarily
well read and blessed with an astonishing memory; in his concise and clear
way, he would unfailingly produce pertinent and stimulating ideas on the
matter in hand.
Even fellow masters, who had taught a text for years, found that Burchnall
could always enlighten them with new meanings and interpretations. One
colleague likened him to a Ferrari which was kept unseen in a garage for
much of the time, but which occasionally emerged in dazzling contrast to the
routine family model.
Burchnall particularly relished, among poets, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth,
Keats, Browning, Bridges, Yeats and Auden; among novelists, Conrad and Henry
His sympathies, though, were as open as his judgment was acute. While
Burchnall's pupils invariably did well in exams, he was never obsessed by
academic grading as an end in itself. He preferred that the intellect should
wander where it pleased rather than execute route marches at the examiners'
Yet he himself was capable of responding magnificently to external
challenge. A masterly sonneteer, and an extremely accomplished writer of
occasional verse, he could turn out witty and unforced pieces to order, and
in double-quick time.
His greatest triumph in this vein was the Masque which he conjured up for
the opening of the new School Hall in 1961. While this entertainment was for
the most part a light-spirited excursion through the school's history,
Burchnall showed himself equally capable in moments of deeper emotion - as
when the Man in Black appeared before the war cloister to plead, in spare
and urgent verse, that he should never again be invited to Winchester.
So the audience was moved as well as amused, and the Masque passed into
Wykehamical legend. Only the author's innate modesty and humility remained
Michael Langley Burchnall was born, the second of three children, on July 8
1921 in Durham, where his father, who had lost a leg in the First World War,
taught at the university, and would later, from 1939 to 1959, be Professor
Michael went to Durham School, where he not only excelled academically, but
also exhibited prowess on the games field. He set a new school record for
the long jump, and proved a useful performer at both rugby and cricket.
In 1940 he went up to Oxford, where he had won a postmastership at Merton.
This, however, was no time for academic study. Commissioned into the Royal
Devon Yeomanry in 1942, Burchnall served in Sicily and Italy, taking part in
the landing on the mainland at Salerno in September 1943.
The story goes that, as he waded towards the shore under heavy fire, he saw
his copy of Browning floating away behind him, and swam back to retrieve it.
Soon afterwards he was badly wounded when a shell exploded in his trench.
The telephone he was holding was smashed into his face, and he received
multiple injuries from shrapnel.
After the first stage of recovery he was invalided out of Naples in dramatic
circumstances, with Vesuvius erupting in the background. Some 20 years later
Burchnall surprised his family at lunch when a piece of shrapnel worked its
way to the surface of his skin and dropped on to the dining-room table.
In 1945 Burchnall returned to Oxford to finish his Greats degree course; in
addition he won the Lee-Hamilton prize for poetry. After a spell teaching at
the City of Oxford school he joined the Winchester College staff in 1949.
Although he taught a form in the middle of the school across a range of
subjects, including Latin, he soon became best known for his English
In those days English was regarded as a somewhat suspect subject,
insufficiently rigorous and dangerously enjoyable. Burchnall increased its
reputation while maintaining the enjoyment.
When a separate English department was finally formed, he was the obvious
choice as its head. His Practical Hints on Writing English became regarded
by staff and pupils alike as the definitive manual.
As a young master Burchnall did not confine his teaching activities to
Winchester. At the end of a day in the classroom he used to cycle to
Stockbridge - a return trip of 16 miles - to give lectures on a series of
abstruse topics, not excluding Roman laxatives and prophylactics.
In 1962 he was appointed housemaster of Morshead's. Although neither he nor
his wife Pam were natural extroverts, they created a friendly and happy
house with an enviable family atmosphere.
The sincere affection which the Burchnalls felt for those under their care
during his 14 years as housemaster was amply reciprocated. Among his charges
were Howard Angus, later world champion at both rackets and real tennis;
Richard Noble, who was to break the world land speed record; and David
Clementi, the future chairman of the Prudential.
Also in the house were the two sons of Albert Gordon, the American financier
who, at 105, is Winchester's greatest living benefactor.
At a ceremony which took place just after Burchnall's death, Gordon's unique
collection of materials relating to Anthony Trollope (a Wykehamist, albeit
briefly and unhappily) was presented to the school in honour of his sons'
Friends were forever discovering that Burchnall was expert on subjects which
no one would have expected him to have known at all. In particular, he loved
Paris, and enjoyed sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city - not
merely of its history, galleries and museums, but also of its restaurants.
If his command of the French language was less than absolute, he knew how to
express himself with forceful economy. When a waiter followed up a
lamentable performance by demanding a pourboire, Burchnall gave him short
shrift: "Service? Mocquerie!"
In retirement after 1983 he developed his fascination for Proust, and
applied himself to the Roman elegiac poet Propertius. He died on March 6.
Michael Burchnall married, in 1947, Pamela Harris; they had a son and twin
daughters. Their son, Richard Burchnall, an Oxford cricket Blue, was
headmaster of St Peter's College, Adelaide.
|[W-OBITS] BURCHNALL: Michael Langley Birchnall 6.mar,2007 by "Peter McCrae" <>|