Obituary: Brian Nellist MBE

Brian Nellist MBE with the late Queen Elizabeth 2

Word by Emeritus Professor Philip Davis

For over thirty years he was, for many of us, at the heart of the English Department. Brian Nellist, who died on 23 February 2024, aged 88, was all that it meant to be a university teacher. Generations of students just loved him – for caring about literature and for caring about them.

There were always these two things about him. One, as the Teacher, he maintained an extraordinary high standard of loud, excited intelligence. It didn’t matter if the group was not always responding, or a contribution was rather lame: Brian would lift the level, spread the feeling. Secondly, as the Witness, he was the one in the department who stayed on after hours to listen to a student’s troubles, to offer gentle and kind understanding. It was like reading quietly redeployed in real life: imagining, feeling, responding.

He joined the University of Liverpool as William Noble research fellow, had a year at Keele, then returned to serve, in all, from 1959 to his retirement in 2000. For that service to literature and teaching he was awarded the M.B.E. — which, in his modesty, amazed him. At about the same time Jonathan Bate commissioned the distinguished artist Thomas Newbolt to paint a Nellist portrait. Instead Newbolt chose to create a teaching picture: Brian in his room, with his beloved and obstreperous beagle, two students, and a golden book on the table.

For the next twenty years, of course, he continued to teach — in Continuing Education and for The Reader Organization — and turned to writing regularly for The Reader magazine, in particular his column ‘Ask the Reader’. Those who want to remember him, in his knowledgeable enthusiasm and zany comedy, should also see the informal YouTube series ‘Nellibobs’, starting at:

Typically, he set himself the goal of amassing half a million pounds over his working life to provide financial assistance for students. When near his target, he was told it could be attained at once by gift aid. But no, he wanted to do it first by himself, he said. That also was typical, as was his wish not to have the award named after him.

It is in many ways that he leaves a legacy.