University of Sussex English professor meets his ‘maker’ at gold medal ceremony

University of Sussex commemoration dinner: Back row from left: Sussex VC Professor Michael Farthing; Professor Tom Healy; Professor Richard Black; Professor David Alan Mellor. Front row from left: Ian McEwan Festus Mogae Jeremy Deller.

In a bizarre example of life imitating art, novelist Ian McEwan was presented yesterday (16 July) with a University of Sussex gold medal by a member of faculty whom he feels he ‘created’.

The Booker Prize-winning author received the award from Professor Tom Healy, head of the University’s School of English, for his global contribution to literature at the University’s 50th anniversary commemoration dinner at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. 

As McEwan revealed in his acceptance speech, his latest novel Sweet Tooth contains a character who is a Sussex English professor specialising in the works of Edmund Spenser and whom he had originally named, by chance, Tom Healy.

“When my publisher found out that there actually was a professor at Sussex in renaissance literature called Tom Healy, we had to pulp 500 copies of a proof edition and replace the name with Tom Haley,” McEwan said.  “‘But the real Tom Healy tells me now that he would have been delighted to see his name in the book.” 

However, McEwan doubted that Professor Healy would really have enjoyed sharing the life of his character and "having his sex life opened up". He put the coincidence down to “the intellectual mischief that embodies Sussex”.

McEwan, who studied English as an undergraduate at Sussex in the Sixties, also revealed that the University had not been his first choice.  He had failed an interview for King’s College, Cambridge, after omitting to read Macbeth, and arrived at Sussex, second choice.

But the disappointment turned to wonder when, through the University’s interdisciplinary teaching, he found himself sitting with the celebrated art historian Quentin Bell, and writing a parody of Freudian psychology, taking Enid Blyton as his subject.

“I had an extraordinary education at Sussex,” he said.  “I owe more or less the arrangement of my mental furniture to the University.”

Three other gold medals were also presented at the ceremony, whose audience included broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg and Chief Executive of Bloomsbury Publishing Nigel Newton.

Turner Prize-winning artist and Sussex alumnus Jeremy Deller was given the honour by his former MA supervisor, the curator and art historian Professor David Alan Mellor.  Deller, who will represent the UK in the 2013 Venice Biennale, said: “David really inspired me.  He sparked off a lot of ideas in me.”

Former President of Botswana and Sussex alumnus Festus Mogae was presented with his medal by Professor Richard Black, Head of the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex.

The distinguished historian and former Sussex Vice-Chancellor Lord (Asa) Briggs was unable to attend the ceremony due to ill health.  His wife Lady Briggs accepted his medal on his behalf from the University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Farthing.

Three further medals, which were designed by architect Anthony Blee and crafted by Spink, are being awarded to Nobel Prize-winners Sir Harry Kroto, Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Anthony Leggett – all of whom carried out ground-breaking research during their academic careers at Sussex.

Sussex Professor Emeritus Margaret Boden OBE, a world authority in artificial intelligence and creativity, completes a prestigious list of gold medal recipients.


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Last updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2012