Address & Eulogy by the Revd Dr Donald Macewan, Chaplain, University of St Andrews
Address & Eulogy by the Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, Chaplain, University of St Andrews
Dundee Crematorium 23 April 2013
Nigel Robert Dennis was born in 1949 in London, the son of Robert and Jessica, and younger brother of the late Patricia.
He went to school at Haberdashers Aske then to Cambridge, to St Catharine’s College, where he read French and Spanish, and played rugby, earning his blue.
He went on to take his doctorate at Cambridge, in modern Spanish literature, particularly of the Civil War era.
During his time in Cambridge, he met Birgitta, who was there studying English: they married in Copenhagen in 1971.
As part of his PhD, Nigel and Birgitta spent time in Madrid during the closing years of Franco’s regime: it was something of a cloak and dagger existence there, with their phone tapped and clandestine meetings with writers and intellectuals.
A job then beckoned in Canada, at the University of Ottawa. The couple moved there, their twin sons Chris and Mike were born there, and before long, before he was 40, Nigel was made Professor, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and was editor of the Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos.
In 1996, Nigel was appointed to the Spanish Department in the University of St Andrews, and the family crossed back to the United Kingdom. He was a greatly respected teacher, popular with students, a supervisor of a number of doctoral students, a willing administrator in the department and School of Modern Languages, and a productive and influential researcher and writer.
He was an international authority on the work of José Bergamín, Giménez Caballero, and more generally on the poets and prose writers of the Spanish Generation of 1927 and the Spanish Civil War.
He was instrumental in spreading knowledge and appreciation of the artist and writer Ramón Gaya to an international audience.
The literature of exile was a perennial theme, and he was greatly interested in the stories of Basque children who were brought to Britain as refugees in 1937.
Family holidays often took them to Spain, where Nigel’s friendships with writers and scholars grew; and they would also spend time in Denmark with Birgitta’s family.
Since moving to Scotland, the family have lived at the Barracks, a lovely house by Arncroach with fine walks in woods nearby, and views down to the Firth of Forth. It was a place where Nigel loved solitude, peace and quiet to read, walking, painting watercolours, listening to music, and playing a small selection of songs on his electric guitar. Indeed, he would play and sing the St Andrews Student Blues at departmental parties.
This service began with a song by the Everly Brothers and will finish with Sunshine of Your Love by Cream, both favourites of Nigel’s.
As a father, he is described as an eager teacher, always looking for the chance to share something of his knowledge and enthusiasm to his sons, and happy with well-argued debate around the kitchen table.
His love of sport continued, supporting Manchester United in football, and the Senators, a Canadian ice-hockey team.
There was a range of gifts in Nigel, which graced his personal and professional life.
Our reading earlier from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, describing the character of someone whose mind is renewed by the grace of God, seems to offer something of a sketch of Nigel Dennis’s own life.
He was modest as to his own undoubted abilities, and never dismissive of others’ views.
He had the facility of conversation with all people, putting them at their ease, with a wry wit and a well-chosen word.
And he was not only appreciated by human beings – cats too found him congenial.
Nigel Dennis did not express his spirituality in conventional Christian expression, though I know he relished gathering with his family and university colleagues every Christmas Eve in St Leonard’s Chapel.
But it may be that Christian hope brings comfort to some who have gathered here today, that death is not the end,
that the Christ whose birth we celebrate every Christmas was raised from the dead,
that the love God has for each and every one of his children will continue beyond the end of this earthly existence.
Last year, speaking on Ramón Gaya, Nigel quoted Miguel de Unamuno, a great influence on Bergamín: the expanded quote seems a fitting, open-minded way to close these reflections on his life: Above all, we must feel and act as if an endless continuation of our earthly life were reserved for us after death; and if nothingness is our fate instead, let us not make it a just fate.
Nigel Dennis’s life was one turned resolutely away from nothingness:
to life, to love, to solidarity, to education, to reconciliation.
He will be greatly missed.
Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Chaplain, University of St Andrews