Remembering Bill

A selection of memories, quotes and pictures about Bill’s life and work. You can send messages to

Obituaries, notices and articles marking his death can be found at the Guardian, the Times Higher Education, the Folklore journal, The Folklore Societythe University of Chichester, the Chichester Observer, Christ Church, Oxford, the University of Edinburgh, Fairy Tale News and the Associazione Italiana Studi Tolkieniani. Tributes from a memorial at the University of Chichester on 25th May 2019 can be found here.

“Among the British scholars of romanticism and fantasy literature whom I have had the great pleasure to meet, Bill Gray was among the finest, and not just because of his scholarship but particularly because of his integrity and compassion. Bill dedicated his life to helping students and colleagues by establishing the innovative journal Gramarye and founding a center for the study of fairy tales, folklore and fantasy literature at the University  of Chichester. In many ways, he was a pioneer and broke new ground by opening up a discussion of literary fields that have often been neglected and belittled. He also had a great sense of humor that I shall miss very much in these troubled times. Words are not enough to describe such a wonderful and formidable human being.”

Jack Zipes, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota

“What to say? The last time I spent with him was in Chichester, where he walked me back to my hotel via a house that Blake had briefly occupied, and we spoke at length about Blake’s extraordinary imagination, and about the connection between “seeing things” and making worlds. I was struck as I always was by his immense kindness and courtesy. He is one of the only academics I have ever known who seemed completely free of the wish to impress; instead, he was always willing to listen. And that, of course, impressed. I also remember examining a doctoral thesis he had supervised. Both he and the candidate were quite nervous and humble, even though I said as I walked in that it was one of the strongest doctorates I’d encountered. It was just like Bill to worry about his student. It goes without saying that his academic achievement in setting up the centre was very characteristic of him; he made a delicate and subtle art of bringing out the best in people. An old-fashioned phrase sums him up: he was a very great gentleman. He will be greatly missed by the whole folklore and fantasy community.”

Diane Purkiss, Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford

“An outstanding scholar in his area, passionately dedicated to his work; a generous and supportive colleague. The Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy is a wonderful life achievement that will always remind us of him”

Maria Nikolajeva, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge

“Bill was not only a great fairy-tale scholar but a truly kind, open-minded and open-hearted man. His work challenges the limitations of narrowly disciplinary, national and monolingual studies: it is wide-ranging and carefully researched, and traces how new genres are created from old ones. I have always admired Bill’s quiet erudition, his fine scholarship, and his careful, loving, patient attention to the details and complexities of literary texts — and so his work reflects a true ethics of reading (something rare in this day and age) — and this made him a wonderful colleague to exchange with. He was also a non-conformist, who did things his own way because it was meaningful to do so and broke new ground as a result. The Centre and its journal Gramarye testify to his passion and generosity.”

Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Université de Lausanne

“A soft-spoken man, Bill Gray could entertain and balance competing perspectives on any number of subjects. This rare gift made conversations with him into thoughtful explorations of contested territory. In the same way, the university center he founded to study folklore, fairy tales and fantasy fosters creative production as well as academic analysis,, for which the Chichester-based journal Gramarye is a living testament.”

Ruth Bottigheimer, Research Professor, Department of English, Stony Brook University

“Bill Gray had a gift for bringing into conversation with one another folklorists, literary critics, and critical theorists. He did so in his own scholarship, as exemplified most recently in his chapter of the Routledge Companion to Media and Fairy-Tale Culture (2018), combining wonderful clarity of writing with philosophy and cultural theory, erudition, and passion for storytelling and the fantastic in all media. And he did so as the heart and founder of the Sussex Centre for Folktales, Fairy Tales and Fantasy [now The Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction] and its publication Gramarye, which quickly grew from newsletter to widely read journal in fairy-tale and fantasy studies. Like so many other scholars across the world, I will miss his interventions in discussions of the storytelling continuum, his generosity and clear mindedness, and his collaborative practices and mentorship.”

Cristina Bacchilega, Professor of English, University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa

“I remember him as an honest, humane man with a young mind, fascinated by some of the mysterious paths of fantasy literature.  I shall miss him from the community of fantasy scholars, but am glad for the work he has left us.”

Colin Manlove, Independent Scholar, Formerly Reader in English, University of Edinburgh

“Bill Gray was not only very knowledgeable in his field but had the gift of communicating this knowledge with infectious enthusiasm. His teaching must have been an inspiration to all his students.”

Jacqueline Simpson, Folklorist and Former President of the Folklore Society.

“Bill was the most thoughtful and considerate of colleagues and teachers. His expertise, attention to detail and commitment to research on the folktale are irreplaceable.”

Gillian Lathey, Honorary Senior Research Fellow University of Roehampton.

“Bill Gray’s ‘Sussex Centre’ was a beacon of hope to those interested in the academic study of folklore in England during an otherwise bleak period for the discipline.”

Jonathan Roper, Senior Research Fellow in English and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu

“[…] Bill’s appointment in 1981 was a significant event, both for me and for the institution. Because Bill was the real deal – a genuine academic with all the positives that term can carry. […] Bill was passionate about the democratisation of Higher Education. Growing up in Parkhead in the East End of Glasgow, his commitment to widening participation and the transformative power of education was a tenet of faith. People like Bill made the University of Chichester. […] So, I think we should remind ourselves that today we are not only celebrating the life of a wonderful teacher, researcher and colleague, who was taken from us suddenly by a cruel illness in 2016. We are also celebrating a founder of this University.”

– Clive Behagg, Former Vice-Chancellor, University of Chichester.
[From memorial at University of Chichester; see full tribute here.]

“Visiting him after his first stroke, although he wasn’t able to express himself as he wanted he was fully alert and wanted to hear about the news from the department, how his students were doing, and how I was – he didn’t want the focus to be on him. And this, for many of us, is our lasting memory of the man – a true scholar who ranged across a variety of disciplines but, more importantly, was devoted to people rather than any form of metric. His legacy will continue to inspire scholars world-wide, but I think he’d be happiest knowing that his former students, and colleagues, held him in the highest regard.”

Miles Leeson, Lecturer in English and Director of the Iris Murdoch Centre, University of Chichester
[From memorial at University of Chichester; see full tribute here.]

“There were several aspects of Bill’s life and work that marked him out as exceptional.  He had studied theology and taught in the Religious Studies department at what was then WSIHE, now the University of Chichester. Transferring to the English department, which he would eventually co-lead with Dr Isla Duncan, he brought a different – ‘hermeneutic’ – dimension to the curriculum. He designed and taught two very popular courses on modern literary theory titled ‘Schools of Suspicion’, modules repeatedly praised by external examiners as rich, challenging and cutting edge. These courses, and his growing interest in the fantastic in literature, proved just a part of Bill’s distinctive contribution to the intellectual life of the university. It was Bill’s exceptional grasp of complex ideas, and his ability to communicate them in his lectures and his books with clarity and elegance that made him such an admired teacher.

Bill was a quietly spoken man, perhaps a bit shy, and sometimes a little waspish. Yet he would never sting. He was never impolite or ungenerous. His passion lay, in part, in an absorbed contemplation of the rich powers of the human imagination. One day, he would walk in to work with a copy of Jekyll and Hyde under his arm. The next day, we’d see him carrying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, a 600 page tome from the eighteenth century. The following day, he’d be interrupted in his office reading Tolkien. All those students lucky enough to have been taught by him understood that Bill ‘knew his stuff’ – and his colleagues understood it too. 

That Bill knew his stuff was amply borne out by the success of his pioneering Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, now under a new title. This centre produced some astonishing work. It attracted a substantial number of postgraduates, published scholarly articles in the journal ‘Gramarye’, and hosted a series of lectures by prestigious speakers including Marina Warner and Jacqueline Simpson. The centre was dedicated to exploring something Bill valued immensely – the life of the mind. 

Some passions his colleagues only glimpsed. I think music might have been one of them. I recall my mixture of admiration and envy when he told me in passing that he’d seen The Grateful Dead perform in London. Another unalterable passion Bill evidently had was for his children. He rarely spoke about them but when he did, it was with complete love and pride.

If Bill kept himself at a little distance from his colleagues, we all respected him, both for his learning and his reserve. A photo of Bill on the University of Chichester website (17/4/19) shows him as I remember him – surrounded by books, smiling with that distinguished grey beard and eyes alive with humanity and understanding. 

He is much missed.”

Duncan Salkeld, Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature, University of Chichester

“Remembering with gratitude a very kind colleague, who, although I was not one of his students, quietly encouraged me along the way during my doctoral studies.  Happy memories of conversations about the Cappadocian Fathers and the ‘transcendent realm’!  Rest in peace.”

Margaret Guise, Associate Lecturer in Theology, University of Chichester

“I got to know Bill when we were both studying for the B.D. at New College. We were alone in our year in having a strong interest in the kind of philosophical approach to religion that, these days, is called ‘continental’, i.e., the tradition going back through Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard to Hegel, Schelling and Fichte. This occasioned uncountable conversations in which we roamed backwards and forwards across the field of thinkers and questions that interested us. A special stimulation came from going to the lectures ‘The Later Heidegger and the Way to God’, given by Fergus Kerr, a Dominican scholar who has been a major figure of British philosophical theology over the last fifty plus years (and is still alive). These were never published but were an extraordinary stimulus, not least to students with interests such as ours.

Unsurprisingly we both went on to do doctoral work in this area. Our conversations weren’t only about the big questions, however: they were also warm and personal. Bill had a readiness to question that is, perhaps, typically Glaswegian – but his questions were delivered in a sensitive and open-ended way that is less characteristic of that great hard-edged city. Later he became godfather to our daughter, Lizzie, as she was known then. The friendship continued after we left Edinburgh and over down to Newcastle, but after that geography and pre-internet communications meant contact became limited mostly to Christmas cards, until we were able to pick up again after we moved to Oxford. I had become a canon at Christ Church where, of course, Bill had been an undergraduate student.

There was one story he told that epitomised both his self-deprecating humour and, if I dare say it, all that’s wrong with Oxbridge! It probably needs to be told rather than written, but I’ll try. Bill was having a tutorial with one of the English dons, in the course of which he (Bill) had occasion to mention Poe, spoken in good Glaswegian as ‘Poh’. After some time, the don asked ‘Who is this “Poh” you’re talking about?’ ‘You know,’ said Bill, ‘Poe, Edgar Allan Poe.’ ‘Oh, you mean Poe [roughly “Po-wgh” – two, almost three syllables]’. Such was the accuracy and memorability of Bill’s rendition that I was able immediately to identify don concerned forty years after the original event, when I met him at my first high table. I value my settings with Bill in Oxford and Chichester and wish only that there could have been more. It’s great that Lorna was able to look after him as she did.”

George Pattison, Professor of Divinity, University of Glasgow

Bill at New College, University of Edinburgh graduating from his PhD on The Contribution of Hans-Georg Gadamer to the Development of a Christian Philosophy.