Reading The Lincoln College Record

That light tinkling noise you can hear, is the gentle shattering of illusions as I read in the latest edition of the Lincoln College Record, “The Myth of the Red Baron”. For as long as I’ve been connected with Lincoln College, it’s been known that there was once a von Richthofen at Lincoln. No one was quite clear about how, if at all, he was related to the famous Red Baron, the Great War flying ace. I was one of those who devoutly hoped that it was the Red Baron himself who studied there, or failing that at least a brother.

It now turns out to have been neither. The Lincoln von Richthofen was Baron Wilhelm Friedrich Adam Lothar Max von Richthofen (1888-1962). He was no more than a distant relation of the famous Baron Manfred – a seventh cousin, in fact. He matriculated in 1913, so only spent one year in Oxford; interestingly, his battels bill was the highest for that year.

(The writer of this demythologising article draws on the extensive Richthofen family website.)

The light tinkling noise is followed by the tolling of a passing bell, as I turn over a few pages and come upon the obituary of Donald Frank Whitton (1931-2005), the French don and my personal tutor during my time at Lincoln. He scared me to death when I was an undergraduate, whether with his dazzling intellect and vast knowledge of many languages, literatures and cultures, my own abysmal ignorance and lack of confidence, or was it just the way he stroked the velvet lapel of my very 1960s jacket?

The last time I saw Donald was at a College Gaudy a couple of years ago. Back in the old days, he had a drink problem, but at the Gaudy he drank only water. Thanks to AA, he was a recovering alcoholic. Someone at the table asked him about the Twelve Steps‘ references to God. He replied that anyone who has been in AA is bound to believe in God. Why? “Because they see miracles happening every day!”

Donald may have been a flawed character (who isn’t?) but his firmly held Catholic faith sustained him, not least during the difficult last couple of years of his life, following a stroke.

I felt strangely sad, learning so many months late of his death. In fact he died just a few weeks before my Dad. Then I understood: Donald is another dead father figure to me. Another possible mentor I could have learned so much from, if I had only been brave enough, humble and obedient enough.

Written on November 13, 2006