To the right of Ian Greenlees’ plaque in Bagni di Lucca’s cemetery is another, dedicated to Robin Chanter, also a subject of discussion at this autumn’s seminar to be held at Bagni di Lucca by the Michel de Montaigne Foundation.
I can do very little to add to Chanter’s obituary, written by James Buchan, descendant of the writer of the 39 steps and his brother-in-law, available at
except to say that Robin’s “official” name, John Roberts Chanter, does not appear on the ossuary plaque since he was always known as Robin. I don’t know why or how or even when Chanter obtained this name. Was it perhaps some attempt to distance himself from the family which had made him suffer so much as a child?
I only know about Robin through what Sam Stych (see previous post) has told me. More than once Sam has related to me the terrible tragedy of Robin’s first-born, Bacchus, who in 1980 was killed as a four-year-old on the Autostrada del Mare between Lucca and Florence (I don’t know exactly where but it is an Italian custom, since exported to the UK, to lay flowers at the roadside where there have been car accident fatalities – and regularly renew those flowers. Sometimes even headstones are placed).
Sam refers still emotionally to the early evening phone call he received and to the utter desolation of Robin and the mother of his one and only son at the horrible event. Apparently, according to one version Bacchus had not been left in the car, which had broken down, but placed outside it because it was thought he would be safer but was, instead, mown down by a passing vehicle. According to another version Bacchus was left in the car which was rammed by a passing vehicle. The outcome, sadly, remains the same: Robin’s only son was kjilled when hardly four years of age.
The mother was a student Robin had fallen in love with while teaching with Ian Greenlees at the British Institute in Florence. True and strong love is independent of gender and I am sure that Ian would have understood perfectly the dynamics of a new ménage-a-trois.
At the college I taught in south-east London for almost a quarter of a century a student once told me that I was the favourite teacher for so many of them but the bête-noir of the establishment. It’s true that I turned up at work because I enjoyed being with my students in equal measure to my dislike of the administration and all that entailed. I was certainly not “career-minded” but, rather, “student-centred.”
I am quite certain that this was at the heart of Robin’s life-philosophy from what I have heard. He was incredibly popular with his mainly Anglo-Saxon students in Florence to whom he introduced a life not centred on cold showers, early reports, the cane, prefectural license, and bullying such as he’d experienced in his own prep school and college in the UK and, when out of them, from his utterly hard-hearted and drunkard father who completely disinherited his son of any family fortune accumulated in the equity market.
Robin was often considered “dissolute” (whatever that word means) by the conservative establishment. He was even censured for wasting a brilliant mind. I believe that Italy, for Robin, represented an escape from the hard work-related protestant ethics of traditional English education which has so much to answer for and which has helped produce some of the most poignant English literature from “Jane Eyre”, through Nicholas Nickleby” to Orwell’s “Such, such were the joys”.
Robin compensated for the unimaginable coldness of his domestic and educational upbringing by displaying all those qualities which had been denied to him: amicability towards his students, enthusiasm for his teaching material, generosity towards his friends, and openness towards new acquaintances.
He was a sort of Mr Fielding (See “Forster’s “A Passage to India”) who was loved by many Italians and ex-pats but hated equally by others for transgressing social and cultural norms. He was treasured for his “Englishness” by Italians and equally scorned for his “Italianness” by repressed ex-pats.
What was outstanding about Robin, however, was his incredible knowledge of his “second country” and his adroitness as a linguist, despite the fact that academically he only achieved a second at Oxford.
At the same time, however, it has to be admitted that Robin’s life was certainly not all sunshine and conviviality. He never overcame the loss of his only son but the consequent terrible sadness helped to cement his relationship with the young student into a marriage which produced no less than four daughters with distinctive Greek names and even more distinctive looks. Robin was also very liberal with drink, which clearly must have contributed to the strokes that affected him towards the end of his life and from which he died at the same age of 75 years as his erstwhile companion, Ian Greenlees.
The house which Robin and Ian bought in 1969, Villa Mansi, still stands with its huge entrance saloon and countless smaller rooms, and has been expertly restored by its present owner whose son is helping me in a particular legal case which involves another English person, this one, however, of stupendous stupidity – of the same type, indeed, that scorned Robin and that Robin would have scorned in equal measure.
Upon Ian’s death in 1988 Robin sold the villa which had housed them, his family and their 28,000 books to move to Nimes France as he felt that a French education would benefit his daughters more. I wonder how much Robin would have missed Bagni di Lucca and whether he ever returned regularly to it. According to Sam Stych, apparently not, and yet Robin Chanter is buried here.
Again, as I said about Ian Greenlees, the best thing in Robin’s life was to have helped found LIPU, the Italian equivalent of the RSPB. Indeed, he became secretary general of the Italian association for the protection of birds, increasing its membership from a handful to over 30,000 in a few years and kicking off further major developments in Italy’s antiquated conservation laws.
Such people as Ian Greenlees and Robin Chanter will regrettably never be seen again in our conventionalised, hyper-regulated and media-strangled world: it will be all the poorer without them.
(Lines from Lorenzo il Magnifico’s poem on Youth on Robin Chanter’s funerary plaque)
Such beauty lies in youth
yet ever so fleeting!
Let him who wants to be happy, be happy
for tomorrow there is no certainty.)