James was born in Oldham in 1937, although his family roots lie in Newcastle upon Tyne where one of his relatives, William Yeoman, had been a Professor of Naval Architecture. He retained a strong and knowledgeable affection for the North East throughout his life. His father was a Methodist Minister and James’s upbringing gave him a rich grounding in the Wesleyan tradition of worship, singing and music. All three would inform the rest of his life.
In 1948 he became a pupil at Manchester Grammar School where his interest and competence in modern languages, especially French and German, quickly became evident. At the age of 15, he spent part of his summer holiday living with a family in a small village in France. Only a few years ago, he revisited the village for the first time in over half a century because, he said, ‘I’d been so happy and carefree there and learnt so much’.
His school career culminated in the award of a place at Peterhouse in Cambridge to read French and German. Like many of his generation, his university career was deferred so that he could complete the required two years of National Service. He volunteered for the RAF and was destined to work with radar. However, at an early stage he had a chance encounter with a Squadron Leader who was looking for volunteers to learn Russian who could be trained to work in signals intelligence. James jumped at the chance and underwent a highly intensive course in Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists initially in Bodmin and then in Crail in Fife. It was made clear to those attending the course that they were not students but serving members of her Majesty’s Armed Forces! After undergoing signals training at RAF Wythall near Birmingham, James was posted to RAF Gatow in West Berlin. He would later acknowledge that starting Russian in the RAF changed his life and established a career that he would never otherwise have had. In recent years he managed to re-establish contact with many of those he had met at the Linguistics School and he uncovered and recorded the role that learning Russian had played in their later lives. His written record is now at the Imperial War Museum in London.
James’s base in Germany allowed him to develop a long standing interest in playing the organ. As a teenager, his father had advised his son against testing his already considerable skill as a pianist on the organ. Organists, said his father, ‘Were always on the lookout for a bigger and better instrument’. It was advice James ignored and which his father did not press and he took every opportunity he could to find an instrument to play. When his father took up a post at Hartley College in Manchester, James was allowed to use the chapel organ. While stationed in Bodmin, he played for Methodist church services and in Crail he made good use of the organ in the parish church. It was Germany that gave him the training he needed to develop his organ playing. He found time between shifts to take organ lessons from Paul Hoffmann who had been the organist of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. For practice, Hoffmann recommended the two manual Schuke organ in Gatow Parish Church, next to the RAF base. At the church, James met a fellow student Dietrich von Amsberg who was practising for his entrance examinations to the Berlin Conservatoire. Dietrich introduced James to the great works of J. S .Bach and demonstrated the art of improvisation that so enriched Lutheran worship. Dietrich would go on to become Cantor at the historic Johanniskirche in Lüneburg.
When he left the RAF James went up to Cambridge to take his degree in French and German. Already more than reasonably fluent in these languages he soon switched to Russian. Russian language and literature quickly consumed his interest, although not to the exclusion of making use of the Peterhouse Chapel organ. After graduation he enrolled on a course in the Soviet Union that enabled him to visit the great museums of Moscow and Leningrad and, no less important, to meet ordinary Russians as best the political climate allowed.
Back in England, James took up a post to teach Russian at Chichester High School where again his organ activities flourished, a high point for him being playing the cathedral organ for the school’s end of term service. After four happy years at Chichester he moved to Leeds Grammar School in 1964 where he spent the next ten years. His involvement with the school chapel, its organ and choir were but part of his musical life in the city. He played music in small groups with pupils and members of staff and at the end of term conducted several Gilbert and Sullivan operas, combining his skills as a musician with a flair for theatre. The latter led him to co-direct a memorable performance of Waiting for Godot and to assist with the management of a summer show and a production of Antony and Cleopatra. He served as organist at a Methodist church in Horsforth where he lived and sang with the Leeds Festival Chorus. While in Leeds he took a keen interest in the Russian Archive at the University and eventually registered as a part -time student to undertake research that led to the award of the degree of PhD by the University in 1976. His thesis on the nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov and the Spirit of Protestantism illustrates James’s acquisitive and inquisitive mind and a marrying of his interests in Russia and religion that would endure.
In 1974 he moved to the School of Education at the University of Nottingham where he was responsible for training teachers of Russian. He published articles and several important books on education in the Soviet Union and on the history of Russian teaching in the United Kingdom. Beyond the University, he promoted the case for Russian teaching in every way he could. He joined the Association of Teachers of Russian, eventually serving as its Chairman, Vice-President and President. This led to his involvement with the Soviet-based International Association for the Teaching of Russian Language and Literature. This, in turn, brought him into contact with students of Russian from many countries involved in the Association’s language Olympiads, the international competitions in language proficiency. The Association recognised James’s outstanding contribution to the teaching of Russian by awarding him its Pushkin medal, of which he was rightly proud. The University of Nottingham also acknowledged his work by appointing him an Honorary Special Professor in Education, a post he held for some years. From 1974 to 1980, he found time to assume the editorship of The Journal of Russian Studies, a much-respected journal.
In 1991, James responded to the reluctance of mainstream publishers to accommodate the relatively small market for books in the field of Russian Studies. He did so by setting up Bramcote Press which he operated from his home in Nottingham and then in Ilkeston. Essentially a not-for-profit organisation, any surplus from the sale of one book was used to finance another or given to charity. When he wound up the Press in 2014, he had published 25 volumes that included a dictionary, language courses, biographies, collections of essays, translations of literary works and some of his studies of education in Russia and Russian education in the UK. Perhaps fittingly, his last book for the Press was a biography of James Heard, a British educationist who made a lasting mark on the education of the poor in Russia in the nineteenth century. James was delighted to be able to track down and meet one of Heard’s direct descendants.
In the 1990s, James gave unstintingly of his time to serve first as a governor and later as chair of the governing body of Ockbrook School in Derbyshire. His involvement there led him to author a book entitled Bold Shall I Stand: The Education of Young Women in the Moravian Settlement at Ockbrook since 1799, published by the School in 2000.
James readily made friends and he remained especially close to some of those he first met at Peterhouse and Leeds. As these friends married and had children of their own, James became part of the family, the younger members simply seeing him as ‘Uncle James’ or ‘Uncle Jim’. He loved the company of the children, three of whom became his goddaughters. He took a keen interest in all that they did and achieved and this interest extended to the next generation of ‘great-god-daughters’ and ‘great-god-sons’. He said that the photographs of the children that adorned his mantelpiece never failed to lift his spirits.
James enjoyed walking in many different places in the UK and Europe. Wherever he went, he rejoiced in each new experience, made many friends and always returned with a fund of good stories. His local walking group in Ilkeston held a special place in his affections. Many of his walking companions in the Derbyshire Dales will have enjoyed not only his companionship but his subsequent hospitality and cuisine.
Gardening was also important to him. He grew some of his own vegetables and took pride in defeating the worst that rain and frost could do to his crop. He loved the changing seasons and the birdsong and colour associated with them. Only a few months before he died he was thrilled to spot a badger prowling in his garden. His conservatory in Ilkeston housed several flowering plants, one of which was an Achimenes, sometimes known as a hot water plant. He bought the plant in 1974 for less than fifty pence and was very proud of his skill in keeping it alive. Several friends will have been given a few of the small pinkish tubers that the still flourishing plant produces each year.
Many of the friends James made in Nottingham or Ilkeston would have first met him through a mutual love of music. His home gradually became the locus for small groups of instrumentalists to meet, socialise and play music together. The repertoire was wide and performance was governed by the instrumentalists available on any given occasion. Trio sonatas with flute and violin gradually gave way to more demanding chamber music for trio or quartet. James was especially fond of his elderly Blüthner piano and he acquired a two manual harpsichord to provide the accompaniment to many a baroque performance. James even taught himself to play the oboe! Although the music was always treated seriously, the occasions were essentially convivial with ample time for conversation aided by excellent coffee, good wine and a selection of cheeses.
His friends readily welcomed James into their own homes to play music. When one of them acquired a second piano, he introduced her to both of the Bach concertos for two keyboards and recalled that he had last played one of them with his music master when he was a pupil at Manchester Grammar School!
James much enjoyed singing as well as playing music. He sang with the University singers and directed it in several concerts, introducing the chorus and audience to several lesser known Russian favourites. He sang in the small choir which performed the Rachmaninov Vespers linked by liturgical music from the Russian Orthodox Church and he was able to advise the singers on pronunciation.
He was also associated with the choir and music activities of St Mary’s Church in Clifton, sharing the conducting of the St Mary’s singers in a happy and productive partnership with a University colleague. Each summer James invited some of his friends to provide instrumental music for a special Sunday Service. Here too he introduced the choir to music by Russian composers. For many years and until recently he was one of the organists at Lenton and Kingswood Methodist Churches. At Kingswood he was a much loved member of the church community, enhancing the worship by playing hymns and music. For James, music was an integral part of worship, not simply an adornment. He was therefore adept in finding just the right piece of music for special services such the Tenebrae Service of light and darkness on Maundy Thursday.
James’s love of organ music led him to join the Derby and District Organists’ Association where he played a full part in its activities. He contributed frequently to its Newsletter, commenting upon organ culture in many forms; its music, composers, instruments, places and players and much else. Many children benefited from his insights in the regular presentations he gave in workshops He served as chairman of the Association in 2011-12 and he used his Inaugural message to tell members of the Association that they, whilst treasuring the organ, were not just organists but part of the wider community ‘promoting the whole world of first-rate music’.
James was widely known and respected within the academic community for his scholarly work in Russian studies. He was no less respected and admired by his many musical friends, some of whom were his former colleagues. For a few he would always be ‘Uncle Jim’ or Uncle James’ with an infectious laugh, a love of good food, wine and company and who (rather annoyingly!) could sight read just about any piece of piano music put before him. All will have found him enthusiastic and committed to whatever he chose to undertake. If an institution or individual fell below his own high standards he could be forthright in expressing his disappointment but his courtesy ensured that his friendships or professional relationships were never compromised. Everyone who had the pleasure of his acquaintance will have recognised his honesty and integrity and benefited from the time spent in his company. The Squadron Leader who encouraged James to learn Russian has a lot to answer for!
It would not have been possible to prepare this obituary of James without the help of many of his friends, professional, social and musical. I am grateful to them all. It is a matter for regret that covid-19 restrictions meant that not all of those who wished to attend the service to celebrate James’s life were able to do so.
I owe a special debt of gratitude to the Reverend Christine Fox for conducting the service at Kingswood Methodist Church and for her help in making the necessary arrangements. At the service, she was kind enough to use much of the above obituary in her Eulogy which concluded with the following words.
‘We will miss James very much; in one way he lives on in the legacy of a life lived to the full, so often for the benefit of others but also the words of Jesus we hear from John’s gospel give us a vision – helping us to see James continuing his life in eternity, at home with Jesus and all those who have gone before –in one of those many rooms prepared for all who believe – and wherever James is, surely his gifts of music and language, hospitality and friendship that he developed here on earth, live on with him, delighting the souls around him for eternity. Those words of Jesus are for you too – he has prepared a way for all, and will come one day and take you to be with him, and James. Amen’
By kind permission of the owner, Funeral Guide ( https://www.funeralguide.co.uk/)