Judith Staynes – 2s 75-82

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Submitted by Helen Pickford (2s, BaB 80-86)

Judy was my School Ma, the first person I remember meeting at Hertford, so she probably would have been important to me for a couple of months or so, even if it hadn’t turned out that meeting her was a genuinely lucky break.  As it was, she was important to me for years, and genuinely influenced the rest of my life.  Despite the 2nd Year- Lower 6th age gap we became immediate, genuinely good friends – the best friend I had in the first year or so at school.  It was typical of Judy that she didn’t particularly care that I was 12 and she was 17 (it was literally years later that I found out that this could be considered odd).  We could talk about books, and that was what mattered.

In the term that I arrived, she was preparing for her Oxford entrance exams, and would have had every excuse to tail off her attention to me as the end of term approached.  What she actually did was to set me her reading list, and then we argued our way through it.  I had always loved reading, but at 12 I had pretty much no discrimination.  Judy taught me that, and to think about what made a book good.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that by the end of my first term it was my fixed ambition to get into Oxford to read English Literature.  Judy not only made me think that that was an ambition I could reasonably have, she demonstrated daily that to study what you love is really the only reasonable way to spend your time.

We stayed friends when she left school, and I can honestly say that the weekends I spent sleeping on the cushions on the floor of her room in College were some of the most memorable of my life.  I remember what we cooked over the gas ring at the end of the corridor, how we altered one of her dresses for me to wear to go to a party at a friend’s house when all I had was my uniform, and most of all yet more arguments in the Queen’s Lane Coffee House and Brown’s in the Covered Market.  When I say I can remember them, I don’t mean I remember having an argument, I mean I remember precisely what she said about Jane Austen’s attitude to Mary as the bluestocking in Pride and Prejudice, because it changed the way I read Austen.  Judy changed the way I read most things.

Of course I was stuck at school for another five years, and all through that time a letter with her spiky, drunken-spider handwriting (sometimes in bottle green or purple ink) was enough to cheer up a whole week.  I used to read them in instalments because I didn’t want to waste them binging them at one go.  Again, at the time I had no idea that for an undergrad who was already writing two essays a week to write to a kid she had briefly had responsibility for a couple of years previously was unusual.  But the letters kept coming, even when I started as an undergrad myself.  There’s no way of knowing whether I would have applied to Oxford, or got in, without Judy’s example before me, but she made it seem possible at a time when I had very little confidence in myself.  Looking back, it’s not just that she was amazingly kind to a kid five years younger than her when most older teenagers wouldn’t give a 12 year old the time of day.  It’s also that I never had the faintest inkling that she was being kind.  We were just friends who shared the good, interesting, outrageous, gorgeous and inspirational things we found, so ended up loving lots of the same things.  I still love them, and for that I thank Judy.