Written by Anthony Whitestone MA (Common Room 1971-2006)
Monday, 12 June 2023

We are sad to announce the death of long-serving member of the teaching staff, John Ridler (1928-2023; CR. 1972-89).

John Ridler joined the Common Room in September 1972. When Bill Blackshaw was seeking a new Head of Modern Languages he turned to his fellow French teacher and friend from his days at Repton. They were on the same school circuit and Bill knew John to be an excellent schoolmaster and scholar who had honed his craft over fifteen years at Denstone and five at Dean Close. John had shown all the attributes of a good schoolmaster – boarding housemaster, head of department, CCF, sports coach etc. John was ready for new challenges.

At Brighton College John immediately made his mark on his department, taking it into the latter part of the twentieth century with the introduction of audio lingual courses and their appropriate technologies. But John never lost sight of the more traditional aspects of language learning: a disciplined approach to the formal learning of grammar, an attention to detail, a thorough reading of texts. Many pupils, from the most to the least able, have been grateful for his relentless and, sometimes, breathless ‘bashing away’, often interspersed with comic and theatrical, self-deprecating comments on what his life might have been like if he had not been brought up in a draughty vicarage in the Cotswolds. John possessed a scholar’s love of literature, especially drama, and appreciation of style and was extremely well read indeed. He found books hard to resist, whether as bargains to be then found in Brighton’s many second hand bookshops and as means of recreation and study, which were usually one and the same to him. The whole school photo brought out a scowl rather than a smile as he calculated the number of wasted man hours consumed in its taking. Similarly, the neatly propped up mark book at common room meetings was there to disguise some more edifying reading than his pupils’ grades.

In his day, John was quite a games player; this was evident from his vocal support from the touchline where in his flat cap and silver knobbed walking stick he was a familiar sight at Ist XV matches. But on coming to the College he found it more sensible to take over the careers department. Here again he built up an important and flourishing concern, introducing The ISCO tests and interview technique courses.

John’s contentment with Brighton and the College was cemented by his involvement with the Brighton Festival Chorus, performing both here and abroad. Music was a very strong feature of John’s social life. In a wider context, he was an indispensable guest at any party, being a brilliant conversationalist but having a happy knack of discovering some acquaintance or experience with people he had never met before.

Perhaps nothing sums up John better than his response to the speeches at his final assembly. Not the usual platitudes on such occasions, but John sneaking on stage wearing his old school blazer and boater and giving a wonderful rendition of The Floral Dance, which encapsulated his eccentricity, colourful personality and love of singing in a way no words could. This was the retirement of an inimitable schoolmaster. I think John was glad to have left when he did. He had little truck for the bureaucracy and managerialism that was taking over education. He had plenty to fill his time, and almost to the very end he retained his rude health. With Margaret no longer at his side, having predeceased him by seven years, he filled his days reading and listening to music, and my final images of John are of him sitting downstairs at his bay window, devouring The Times, accompanied by the odd glass of sherry or two and latterly something stronger. Whenever I visited John, I would always be reminded of his memorable inter departmental memorandum: “self-education continues to the grave”.

John’s four children looked after him well, and we send them our condolences.

Life will be the poorer without him, but personally I will remain grateful for over fifty years of friendship and for his copy of Grevisse’s Le Bon Usage Grammaire Française, which I shall treasure, knowing full well I shall never attain his mastery of it.

Elizabeth Blackshaw writes:

Bill and I were delighted when John and Margaret Ridler decided to join us at Brighton College from Denstone college where John had been a housemaster and had run the Modern Language Department. We had known the family from before our own move to Brighton College in 1971.

Those first early years were tricky ones for us all, but John was invaluable in getting the Modern Languages department sorted out, and he and Margaret threw themselves wholeheartedly into every aspect of school life. The also revelled in the musical life of Brighton with John joining the Festival Chorus and Margaret the Orpheus Choir.

Bill felt greatly indebted to John over many years for his always wise and sensible advice on school affairs and considered him one of the most distinguished schoolmasters he had known.

There will be many tributes to John from former Staff and pupils of Brighton College. I myself remember him, Margaret and their family as close and loyal friends to Bill and me and to our own family over more than 50 years.

Chris Ramsey (Ha. 1976-81) writes:

In The Browning Version, the old teacher weeps at the Greek quotation ‘God from afar looks kindly on a gentle master’. I’m not sure John Ridler would have had much truck with that: he was always far too, often manically, busy: listening to opera in the few minutes between lessons, filling every inch of that green roller board and every bit of every piece of paper. A genuine scholar, he positively overflowed with ‘stuff’: vocabulary, grammar, literature, an encyclopaedic knowledge of even the most humdrum of textbooks (‘if you remember, on page 15 of Longman A5…’): all was grist to his mill.

The music was a passion of course, and in retirement he and Margaret sung indefatigably at St Batholomew’s in Brighton. Sport was to us in the 1970s and early 1980s a slightly surprising aspect to the man, strutting with shooting-stick along the touch line and even barking encouragement. Was this really our French teacher?

Of course, it was as a French teacher that he was most, and truly memorable. He was the first person I have ever known who taught a book (Le Mariage de Figaro, in the Lower Sixth) as if he really knew, loved and believed it, and the message of forgiveness at its end rings as true now to me as it clearly always did to him. He could be hilarious, and few teachers were more imitable; few provided more memorable moments, sometimes for the wrong reasons (as when miming a stag at bay - the phrase ‘aux abois’ now to me utterly unforgettable - accidentally turning the lights in his classroom off at 5pm on a winter’s afternoon, and then profusely apologising, to the girls of course).

He was quite simply the teacher I aspired to be and who inspired me to the profession. God bless him.


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