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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

In Memoriam Peter David Manning

Adolescent friendships can shape our lives. Peter and I were school friends back in the 1960s. We were close. He was a little older than me, which meant that he was a big influence in my teenage years. He encouraged me to audition as a chorister at Hampstead Parish Church where he already sang, a decision that had lifelong consequences for me as a cathedral precentor and dean. We did chemistry experiments together in the science sixth form, lightly supervised in those days, including trying to create an explosive detonating device (we didn’t succeed - the school is still standing). We cycled round north London, listened to choral music on our crystal-sets, and pottered with our reel-to-reel tape recorders (with his flare for electronics, he had built his own and my parents paid for me to have a replica). We played piano duets (he was a better musician than me because he practised properly) and listened to each other navigate Bach on the school organ. Peter taught me about isobars, occluded fronts and cloud forms. He had his own barograph, an exquisite device of which I was intensely envious, still I’m told performing faithfully in his and Liz’s home at Cornsay where he was honoured as the local village meteorologist.

His family had a house in the Cotswolds, and I spent happy weeks there in school holidays. I would take my bike on the train and we would enjoy days roaming the hills, visiting village churches, picnicking by streams and pondering the mystery of things at evocative sites like the nearby Rollright Stones. We laughed helplessly at The Navy Lark and The Clitheroe Kid on the Light Programme, and at Flanders and Swann (At the Drop of a Hat, At the Drop of Another Hat) on two scratchy LPs we must have listened to daily. We talked incessantly, as teenagers do, about God, the universe and everything. Given Peter’s legendary wine collection at Cornsay, I’m wondering if Bordeaux and Burgundies featured at the dining table at Over Norton. I don’t recall. But that cottage was always a place of welcome and warmth during the turmoils of adolescence. Even now, three quarters of a lifetime away, it holds fond memories.

One day Peter’s father asked us if we’d like a men’s day out in their stylish Triumph Vitesse (“0 to 60 in eight seconds”, Peter had told me proudly). The plan was to visit the Three Choirs Cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester. It didn’t end well. Taking a bend in the road too fast, the car struck the bank and careered off on the opposite side. Finding a lucky gap in the oncoming traffic, the Vitesse skimmed across a ditch, ploughed through a hedge, and turned over in a field. The three of us hung there upside down. There was a long silence. It was broken by Peter’s plaintive voice from behind, “O dad, what have you done?” Understated, seemingly unfazed, cool even. That was very Peter. Then, in the face of his father’s helplessness and mine, his practical instinct took over. He instructed us to extricate ourselves from the car and push it back upright. “Try starting it” he ordered. The ignition fired first time. We got back in and his father drove the off-piste Vitesse diffidently out of the field (through the gate this time). The rest of the journey was taken up with a discussion about tactics on getting home, for it was decided that on no account must his mother know what had happened. So a not very convincing story was concocted about an overhanging branch that gave way just as we were passing underneath it, which explained the dent in the car. She cross-examined me in private. Somehow, I held to the official line. I don’t know if she ever found out.

Our paths diverged after schooldays. Peter came to Durham to read music and stayed for the rest of his life. Who could blame him? Nearly four decades later, I followed him here. His was among the warmest of welcomes that greeted me when I arrived as Dean at the cathedral where he had sung as a choral scholar in undergraduate days. I’d followed his career from afar, so I knew he had become an internationally recognised expert on Electronic and Computer Music, to quote the title of his best-known book. What I found as I mingled with Durham’s music community was how respected, admired and even loved the Professor was by those whom he had taught, supervised, made music with and worked amongst. There’d always been that spark of inventiveness and creativity about him that had nudged me to think in new ways (that I never got the hang of things electro-acoustic is my fault, not his). But there was something else too: his capacity to focus on the task. He’d learned at school, the hard way I think, that imagination and flair are not enough: there need to be discipline and hard work to shape inspiration and ideas into productive teaching, writing and research. We honour his professional achievements. They are very significant and will endure.

But what I most want to celebrate today are Peter’s personal qualities. I’m thinking of what I already knew in our schoolboy friendship: generosity, patience, tolerance, care, a wry sense of humour, and yes - a capacity for forgiveness. The child was the father of the man: beneath the reserve, the slight but perhaps cultivated eccentricity, lay warmth, kindness, humanity, playfulness, gentleness of spirit. In later life when we got to know each other again, we had both changed of course. But those remembered aspects of his character were there - now shaped and sustained by a long and happy marriage and a rich family life. To have reached and celebrated their golden wedding last year was, I know, an event of great significance to Peter and Liz, Clare and David and their families. Marriages that endure into older age and yield their harvests of faith, hope and love are always beautiful and moving.

We treasure our memories and are the richer for them. Rest in peace Peter. God keep you in his care.

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