Day Shift – 20/10/2009 – 02:10 PM
Presenter: Carol Duncan
Interviewee: Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, Newcastle University Newcastle University
With the recent launch of the University’s ‘You Are Here Now’ Exhibition, documenting the lives of past and present GLBTIQ (i.e., gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and/or queer) staff and students Archivist Gionni Di Gravio discusses the life and times of one of the scholars featured in the exhibition, the late Brian Tomson, a remarkable medieval scholar and chess master.
Firstly I would like to sincerely thank Mr Bob Meadley of Narromine for generously allowing us to publish transcriptions of his letters from Brian Tomson and background documents relating to his final days. It is largely due to Bob that we know anything about Brian at all.
My knowledge of Brian Tomson dates back to my first days working at the University. I was one of Rare Book Librarian’s (then) young recruits for seeking out and locating items from the miles and miles of shelving in the Library and reassembling the private libraries of the University’s great scholars and identities.
After a while, I got to recognise Brian Tomson’s books as a standout, he had a exceptional eye for beautiful books, especially those relating to medieval science, magic and chess. His chess books formed the majority of the collection. He was also ‘exceptional’ in that we knew precious little about him personally. I was told that he was the first person in Newcastle to die of AIDS. There were no photographs, no extant staff file, or any other biographical information, in fact no archives survived at all.
Then in 2001 I met Bob Meadley who came to the University wanting to visit Brian’s chess library. Bob also sent us a photograph that we scanned and used on the website.
I recently contacted Bob during the preparations of the ‘You Are Here Now’ to share my distress at how little archival material (besides his personal library) we had on Brian Tomson.
Bob kindly sent us transcriptions of various letters to and from Brian from his letterbooks, and copies of additional correspondence, newsclippings and obituaries.
During the closing stages of his life Brian had been editing the codex which contained a Trinity College Cambridge manuscript MS 0.5.26 entitled the New Theorik of Planetis by Andalo di Negro. The author of Chaucer’s Universe, J.D. North, believes that Brian was the first to identify the author of this treatise. (North, 1988 p.134)
Barry Baker, along with John Ashton, were Brian’s neighbours who looked after him in the closing stages of his life.
Barry remembers going to the Royal Newcastle Hospital and seeing Brian, alone, in one of the rooms there. There was no family or friends looking after him there, so Barry felt he needed to help him, which he did.
HIV AIDS in the 1980s, was little understood and much feared. It is a credit to them that they looked after his needs in hospital and took care of his affairs after he passed away on 20 June 1986.
Please download Bob Meadley’s account of his friendship with Brian Tomson through his letters and related documents:
Chess Title to W.E.A. Player
From WEA News, Vol 2 No.5 Sept. 1971
The 1971 Country Chess Championship of N.S.W. has been won by a member of the Newcastle Chess Club (a W.E.A. club), Brian Tomson.
A former player for the club and previous winner of the NSW Country title, Ken Hill, shared second place. Hill left Newcastle to move to Wollongong recently.
Brian Tomson is a lecturer in English at the University of Newcastle. Before coming to Australia he had gained fourth place in the Irish National Title, played for Oxford University and represented Eireland in an international universities tournament played in Europe against top class competition including the crack Russian. He modestly stresses the fact that the Irish team finished in last place on this occasion.
The acquisition of a player of Tomson’s calibre should enable the W.E.A. club to overcome the loss of Hill and retain its high standing in NSW country chess.
Obituary – Brian Tomson
From University News Volume 12, No.11, July 7-21 1986.
Brian Tomson of the English Department died in Royal Newcastle Hospital on June 20 after a long illness. He was 44. He left no relatives in Australia, but the large attendance at his funeral showed how widely he was valued.
After graduating MA in English and French at Trinity College, Dublin, Brian Tomson took up post-graduate research on Malory at Brasenose College, Oxford and gained his BPhil. He came to the University of Newcastle in March, 1968, as a lecturer in English and continued to work towards an Oxford DPhil in medieval literature.
In his earlier years in Newcastle, he was able to carry out all his teaching in the fields of Old and Middle English. As the heavy staff-losses of recent years reduced the Department’s range of courses, he turned his attention to the teaching of more recent literature. But, the older work remained his real love and students who shared that interest with him saw the best of his high abilities.
He was one of the finest chess players in the Hunter Region, playing with considerable success in the NSW and Australian championship tournaments. He did particularly well in 1984, the last year he was able to compete. He also acted as chess correspondent for the (then) Newcastle Morning Herald and was a regular contributor to chess journals.
Brian was a quiet but strong-minded man who warmed to a congenial conversation and had a shy but searching wit. His friendship was not lightly granted but his company will be greatly missed in the Department of English and beyond.