There are people we meet in life by whom we are uplifted, others by whom we get motivated, but few are those that leave an imprint on our souls. Barbara Smethurst, or as I called her, Mrs Smethurst, was of that rare pedigree that left a deep imprint on my soul.
She was a beautiful elderly woman: fair skinned with silver white hair, of medium height, impeccably dressed in a knee length skirt and a long-sleeve blouse of an earlier time in England; courteous and well-mannered with a strength of character that marked all women of her age. This, coupled with her radiant smile, always left all who came in her presence to throw off all pretence. Or this is how it was for me. And I’m sure it was for many others too.
She instilled within me a love of the English language: its prose, its poetry, its literature, its style, its lyric and its ambience. We read together in the 1990’s, in our small class of GCSE English: Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Russell’s Educating Rita, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Burke’s Almswomen and much more which I can’t remember.
That first immersion into the rich literary history of English was love at first sight. I love reading, I love writing, but most of all, I love reading style manuals. Ever since reading Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, writing guides have been among my favourite literary genres. It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the art of writing. It’s also because style guides are perfect exemplars of their own advice; towering paragons for all to look up to and despair. Strunk’s gem of a book is rich with brief commandments: ‘Write with verbs and nouns’; ‘Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end’; and my personal favourite: ‘omit needless words’. Although written for an American audience, the difference for a British audience is negligible, given its usefulness.
Mrs Smethurst embodied this classic style of writing that is taut, clear and concise. In the days when I was in her class, she omitted many needless words, and omitted them forcibly. She marked and corrected our work with the eagerness of a general commanding his forces on the battlefield. She would stoop over our A4 sized papers with her glasses half-way over her aquiline nose, and with great rigour and precision, the battle began. Superfluous verbs, extraneous phrases and run-on sentences were all crossed off with scarlet ink; some survived with mere battle wounds which only needed rephrasing; but others were not dealt with so lightly, they were completely decapitated. Thus, cutting off the cackle, and bringing the cart to the horses.
I like to read style guides for another reason. I am by profession an English teacher, or more correctly an English for Academic Purposes lecturer/teacher. It’s the same reason that sends botanists to the garden and scientists to the laboratory. It’s a practical application of my science. This professional acquaintance with language is all thanks to Mrs Smethurst.
I used to write to her every so often and the last letter she wrote to me was dated 5th February 2021. She relayed her illness to me and how she was limited to what she could do, but she was ever eager to know about how my family and I were getting on with life. She signed off the letter with her distinct cursive handwriting:
‘Once again, thank you and God bless you and your family,
She was a remarkable woman and now that she is no longer with us, its only her memories that we have.
‘Oh Memory! Save me from the world’s poor strife,
And grant these memories thine Everlasting Life.’