‘The most religious atheist I ever met’
By Jess Wilks, his daughter
Bronte biographer and lover of magic who took risks in his quest for excitement and truth.
PROF Brian John Wilks was our dad and grandfather to Joshua, Findlay, Gwen and Robert, whom he mostly ignored; which was a shame.
He was a writer, an educationalist, an author, painter, poet and relentless enthusiast for art for the sake of it. He was also a lunatic, unconventional, armchair anarchist.
Much loved and much berated for his singular path in life (damn the consequences), our absent father was, perhaps, a maverick genius.
Lunatic and absurd, he often claimed he was “not meant to be here“. He loved magic and misbehaving and he loved the theatre, deconstructing the fantasies.
He could be also be found in churches, sneaking around dusty lofts to play the organ and taking pictures of tanks from a watchtower before the wall came down in East Berlin.
With a great sense of humour he took risks that needed to be taken in order to satiate a quest for excitement and truth and often an escape from present reality, responsibility and accountability; all of which he was very good at.
As a street urchin, with ambitions to beat the system, he accidentally trained as a pilot by refusing to stand in the appropriate queue for National Service. He learned to fly but crashed the plane on his final landing, receiving his honorary wings at the age of 83 .
He left the RAF to become a priest and wrote a poem entitled What Did I Think I Was Doing, upside down with a cockpit full of toffee wrappers.
He came from humble beginnings, illiterate parents, and made a great effort like his hero, Patrick Bronte, to bring poetry and literacy and art to the masses. He was a throwback to another era ….
He was professor of English and drama in education at Leeds University, having studied in Liverpool where he had strong connections with the local artists and musicians of the 1960s.
My brother and I grew up with a house full of papers and typewriters among various oversized portraits of Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe and the Vietnam war, the Maharishi, Bach, The Beatles and Shakespeare.
He wrote books, played music, told stories and lies and massively enriched our lives.
He taught me how to be brave … and how to play music .
And the last time we met for lunch, when he was 83, he was enthusing about how wonderful his lecture had gone and another recent session with the special needs children and the magazines that he took to help them tell a story.
Amazed at his own capacity to be useful and helpful even in his decrepitude, he was inspiring and dedicated to his teaching. He talked about himself a lot, but had recently learned to listen, and saw the beauty and poignance in lots of everyday things.
He loved life and grew geraniums and talked to seagulls, took art classes and played organ for all his friends’ funerals, maintaining they hadn’t spotted he was a fake busking his way, with a habit of playing The Wombles theme tune in the pedals for particularly boring hymns.
The most religious atheist I ever met … God love him. He returned after a long absence to make peace, thanks for that.
You knew you were dying and you made sure you made space for us to be there alongside you.
Of your Shakespearean ability to create tragic and comic scenarios your fifth and final act was a humdinger
Thanks dad for not taking life too seriously.
You were often absent and ultimately unfathomable, but at least we know where you are now: back in the heart of the ‘pool, amongst friends, where it all began.
You were hilarious to the end as you refused to stop making things up your last creation went like this …
Poems whilst dying
Swiftly followed by ….
Bring me champagne
And sail on ….
(Cue seagulls ).
*B.J.Wilks. Author of The Illustrated Brontes (Hamlyn); Jane Austen (Hamlyn); Charlotte In Love; The Brontes Of Haworth (Tiger).
Chairman of the Bronte Society, Haworth.
Hon prof of NYU
Patron and friend of the portrait artist Sam Walsh.