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Michael Bell

This is the text of a tribute delivered at Victor’s funeral on the 2nd of August, 2016.

It is an honour to speak about Victor as he was respected, admired and loved by so many people here and around the world. My brief is to speak of the man rather than the professional scholar and teacher although in him, as we all know, these aspects are peculiarly inseparable: it was his specific individual humanity that informed everything he did. I don’t know if any of us can claim to know another human being but I would like to recall, as I will take pleasure in recalling in future, some images of the Victor that I valued and loved.

I knew Victor since his early days in Warwick when he was struggling on a junior academic salary to run a department, maintain the fabric of an old Leamington house, and care for a young family. He took over Film Studies with the promise of new colleagues who year by year were not appointed. My image of him from that time is of a man putting his own career on hold to devote his energies to the service of others with less apparent resentment than one might have expected. Maybe this was partly because he was able to find in what for others might be the most humdrum occasions absorbing objects for his sympathetic but quizzical intelligence. He brought out the interesting side of whatever he encountered. He once told me the story of his war-time evacuation which seemed to me to throw light on the humane quality of his intelligence.

At the age of around seven he was sent to live with relatives in Devon who supplied his material needs but lacked, to a Dickensian degree, the instincts of affection and nurture. He was emotionally bereft and the experience left him with a permanent anxiety. He said that when his then wife, Tessa, just went out to a shop he could feel the tug of that old wound. Since then, that image of a small child’s pain and perplexity has helped me appreciate the mature Victor who combined strong humane feeling with a stance of objective curiosity and wonder at the world at large and at the behaviour of his fellow beings in particular. It made sense too of his taking up the apparently common-place, and then still largely unregarded, medium of film to reveal, with his cool analytic intelligence, its emotional depths and subtleties.

The study of film depends on the skill of looking and noticing. Right to the end Victor maintained an open-eyed naivety which, along with his personal wholeness, enabled him constantly to ask the penetrating question. At a recent live transmission he asked me whether Mozart was the first to take contemporary life as a subject for opera. Victor’s modest assumption that I would be more informed than he on the matter only made it the more embarrassing to recognise that I had never explicitly posed to myself this obvious question which clearly went to the heart of Mozart’s genius. It is the mark of a true thinker or educator that their insights are quite obvious … afterwards, and perhaps that we remember them as always raising questions rather than giving answers.

Victor was not a cynical or disillusioned man because he never did illusion in the first place. Among the illusions he had no time for were the comforts of religion. But he took great satisfaction in that human form of the afterlife which is the lives of one’s children. His spirit lives on in Toby who has devoted his life to public service and, in a time of shameless degradation in politics, stands up for, and embodies, human decencies. Then there is Polly. I have an image of Victor carrying the two-year-old Polly in his arms, his face suffused with bemused affection, saying ‘Oh, Polly, she is a monster’. And indeed she was a monster in the proper sense of something to be seen and wondered at, a constant carnival of imperious emotional energy which we can now see was the basis of the generous-hearted woman she was to become. He has left a substantial legacy in the personal as well as the professional realm and if the myth of the Last Judgement suggests that a human life can be looked upon as a kind of moral test then our friend was truly one of its Victors.

Victor had a firm sense of the value not so much of who he was as what he did. Maybe this is why he formed intellectual friendships with some of the most distinguished minds of his generation. He told me recently he had started a new email conversational friendship on film with someone in America. There was no name dropping and only later did I learn this was an eminent academic philosopher. I have remarked on the honour of speaking about Victor but of course the true honour is just to have been numbered among his friends. Good-bye Victor. Well done. Thank you, and may you rest in peace.