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Michael Tanner: 60 years a fellow at Corpus Christi and ‘an intellectual tour de force with a rip-roaring sense of humour’





Tributes have been pouring in from myriad different sources – testimony to a life well lived – following the death of Michael Tanner, who taught philosophy at the University of Cambridge for 36 years, was a life fellow at Corpus Christi, a world-renowned expert on Wagner, and a much-loved and resonant opera critic at The Spectator.

The Telegraph described Dr Tanner as "one of the most brilliant and single-minded Cambridge dons of his generation"; The Times remarked "he was even incapable of writing a dull footnote."

Michael Tanner at The Box on Norfolk Street. Picture: Mike Scialom
Michael Tanner at The Box on Norfolk Street. Picture: Mike Scialom

And the Master of Corpus Christi, Professor Christopher Kelly, said: "Michael was one of the great figures in Corpus in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Quite aside from his loss to culture, his passing will be keenly felt in Cambridge socially, where he was a hugely popular and respected educator, wit, raconteur, fine dining connoisseur, classical music expert – especially Wagner – and intellectual tour de force.

I knew nothing of this when I first met Michael at Adilia’s coffee shop in 2018. I started going there every Wednesday at 10am for coffee before going round the corner to the Cambridge 105 studio to take part in a half-hour news show. In Adilia’s, I was supposed to be scanning the just-published edition of the Cambridge Independent for stories to discuss on the radio, but that gradually took second place to having a coffee with Michael, and chatting about the state of the nation or the latest Cambridge furores and, after a year or two, I took to joining him at The Box further up Norfolk Street for lunch every few weeks – it being just up the road from his home.

Michael Tanner outside his former office in Old Court. Picture: Corpus Christi College
Michael Tanner outside his former office in Old Court. Picture: Corpus Christi College

Lunch with Michael was a two-hour banquet of food, excellent Turkish wine, and wild, glorious, stories. He loved the owners, not least because they had continued to deliver him his lunch during the pandemic. With Michael, you were never in any doubt that you were in the company of someone exceptional, someone with a rip-roaring sense of humour in a room from which no elephant could escape comment – withering, hilarious, insightful comment.

I got a bit of a potted history: his father was a fireman, and the family moved around the country. As a child at one point he was living near Biggin Hill when the Battle of Britain was being fought: he said he would look up and see the vapour trails of the planes when they were shot down, and the kids chased after the planes if they crash-landed nearby to see the pilot captured or welcomed home.

He was delighted to get into Cambridge in the mid-1950s, and related how he felt his life truly began as an undergraduate in a city he grew into, and which grew into him.

One time he mentioned he’d sat next to Sylvia Plath in class and I couldn’t not ask him what she was like.

Michael Tanner with Cambridge Independent journalist Mike Scialom at The Box on Norfolk Street. Picture: Mike Scialom
Michael Tanner with Cambridge Independent journalist Mike Scialom at The Box on Norfolk Street. Picture: Mike Scialom

He described Plath as mischievous and effervescent and added: “But I spent a lot of the time wishing she would just calm down a bit.” His “calm” and “down” were not understated.

He was at Corpus when EM Forster was Master at King’s.

“He had no small talk,” Michael despaired. “None whatsoever.” Between each syllable of “what-so-ever” was a theatrical pause, as if to allow the implications of such a condition to sink in.

As one of the world’s foremost Wagner scholars – his The Faber Pocket Guide to Wagner is a timeless classic – Michael went to Bayreuth for the Wagner festival every year, or did until travel became too complicated. There, one suspects, he was the darling of the Wagner set: he’d earned his place at the high table, through ruthless scholarship and relentless investigation. He loved being at High Table at Corpus too, and relayed with relish the occasion when one Royal stubbed out their cigarettes in the eggs Florentine . He could be terribly, wonderfully, indiscreet. He suffered too, of course: he was thoroughly miserable for a while after the death in 2019 of Clive James, whom he counted as a friend and felt was taken before his time (James died in Cambridge aged 80).

Michael battled the indignities of old age with no trace of self-pity. He still had a lot to give – a memoir was being worked on. There were stories to be told, reputations to assess and reassess. The buffonery and incompetence of the ruling classes amused him. He read voraciously, from the Greek philosophers to Private Eye, and he could jump in at any point in European history of the last 500 years and describe the cultural landscape of the time intimately. His ability to read people was consummate, and he was a generous and willing listener, who devoured everything you had to say with the delight of a hungry traveller, unless you voiced a lazy thought, or – heaven forfend – any species of cliched thinking. Then he would gleefully pounce, like a chess master spying an undefended queen, though above all he loved the cut and thrust of conversation and debate and, however withering he might be, he always left you, his audience, with a dignity-restoring escape route.

Michael Tanner at The Box on Norfolk Street Picture: Mike Scialom
Michael Tanner at The Box on Norfolk Street Picture: Mike Scialom

Professor of Philosophy and Corpus Fellow Dr James Warren said: "Michael Tanner was a philosopher and critic of wide learning and immense charisma who was one of the great characters of Corpus Christi. He had strong opinions, particularly about music and literature, and was very happy to express them in his characteristic, sometimes acerbic, style.

“Most of all, he was continually interested in people; he enjoyed meeting new members of the College and finding out about their work, interests, and lives over coffee after lunch. He is very much missed."



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