Remembering Richard Sheppard
UEA alumni remember Richard Sheppard, Professor of German Literature, following his sad passing last year. Mary, Ricky, and Philip contacted the Alumni Office knowing that Richard's time at UEA had had a big impact on many students. They describe their recollections of Richard below.
Mary and Ricky
Imagine your first literature seminar, having newly arrived at UEA to study German. The young lecturer arrives and distributes copies of a poem: “Who would like to comment on this?” Eventually one or two self-confident students begin to volunteer appreciative opinions on vocabulary, structure, etc. To which the lecturer eventually responds: “It’s bloody awful. I made it up on the way here” – one typically subversive and hilarious ice-breaking lesson in what Richard expected of his students.
Every UEA student of German between 1967 and 1987 will have similarly vivid memories of Richard – later Dr and eventually Professor – Sheppard, as will his Oxford University students after Richard moved there as German Fellow at Magdalen College. It was with huge sadness that we learnt of his death on 17 October 2022, aged 78.
On 15 July this year, a number of his UEA students, including a few of 1967 vintage, joined numerous of his friends and colleagues from every era of his life to remember him with admiration and enormous gratitude – as well as a generous sprinkling of humour – at a memorial event at Magdalen College. The speakers included a county-court judge, a former UEA student (Phil Mann, EUR 1973–77), a former Oxford student, and two Oxford colleagues. One (sadly) notable absence was that of his UEA colleague W. G. (“Max”) Sebald. A kindred spirit who joined EUR in 1970, Sebald rose to international prominence as a writer during the 1990s. Richard and Max remained very close friends up until Sebald’s tragic death in 2001.
Shining through all the amusing anecdotes and sincere tributes of the memorial was an affectionate appreciation of Richard’s extraordinary humanity. He was someone in whom a multitude of opposites combined: the deep scholarship of the “archive junkie”, Dada expert and razor-sharp intellect contrasting with the practical recycler, fanatical re-user of old envelopes and skip-diver; the wildly mischievous, irreverent and acerbic humour that went hand in hand with the enormously considerate and generous friendship shown to students and colleagues; the infamous red biro that dismantled essays and drafts of theses on the one hand, and the constructive and enthusiastic encouragement given their writers on the other; the careful frugal streak that steamed off unfranked stamps to re-use set against the bon viveur’s love of good food and wine; and the lifelong fear of dogs (the result of a childhood trauma) contrasting with the late devotion to a stray puppy following what he called his “dog-ascene” conversion.
Richard was a dedicated educator, from his role as Head Boy of his public school, when he persuaded the headmaster not to allow prefects to beat younger pupils, to his encouragement of state school university students and the trouble he took to build their confidence.
More than anything else, Richard’s students learnt to take nothing on trust, and to examine social and political claims as critically as literary ones. For many, being held to the highest standards of intellectual enquiry has become a lifelong guide. Many of those attending the celebration of his life talked of the way he had inspired them both in academic work and in their daily lives, and this sentiment will be shared by many others from across the decades.
Thank you Richard.
Mary Shields and Ricky Knight (EUR 1967–71)
See also Philip Mann’s excellent obituary: “Richard Sheppard. Ein Nachruf”, Hugo-Ball Almanach, Neue Folge 14, Munich 2023, pp. 155–56.
One aspect of Professor Richard Sheppard’s life which was not referred to by Mary Shields and Ricky Knight (Ziggurat, 18 August 2023), or at the memorial gathering for him in Oxford last July, was the fact that for several years during his time at UEA he was an ordained Lay Reader in the Anglican Church. He delivered sermons during Freshers’ Week and from time to time ministered at Sunday services. I recall him conducting an evening discussion on the existence of God – this in a university where the sizeable Philosophy Department, in which I was studying, consisted entirely of agnostics and atheists. Richard tackled the issue in an entirely different manner from his colleagues in Social Studies, drawing attention to, for instance, the writings of Pascal: an existentialist approach, refreshingly free from the narrow rationalism of my tutors. I also remember him addressing a Norwich group called the Tenison Society (named after the 17th-century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Tenison, who had held the living at Norwich’s St. Peter Mancroft church), and recommending the writings of Julian of Norwich, who had “written a rather good Penguin Book”. For Ash Wednesday in 1971 he created a multi-media meditation on the meaning of Lent, the intensity of which demonstrated a very different side to his character from the extravert persona evident in his teaching.
Richard’s involvement with the Church did not last, but his knowledge of theology and mysticism added a spiritual dimension to his scholarship. During his later years at UEA he was drawn to Jungian psychology (and loved examples of “synchronicity”), and one reason for his dislike of postmodernism was its concern for surfaces and lack of interest in depth. He had no time for the cult of Professor Dawkins, whom he regarded as “an inverted fundamentalist”. Richard Sheppard’s resistance to the secularist outlook so dominant in academia was a notable sign of his intellectual independence and courage.
Philip Conford (SOC 1967-70; EUR 1970-71)