John H. Astington: Scholar. Actor. Outdoorsman. Grandad. Born Jan. 20, 1945, in Stockport, England; died Dec. 11, 2019, in Toronto, of complications from treatment for lymphoma; aged 74.
John Astington was a man of few words but these were invariably witty or profound, and often both, spiked with quotations from his heroes of English drama. His cats were named to honour these heroes: Pinter’s MacGregor; Monty Python’s Polly; and Shakespeare’s Hippolyta and Tybalt, soon known by the more catlike epithets, Pippy and Tibby.
John’s lifelong love of Shakespeare began at Stockport Grammar School, in the north of England, where he acted in Macbeth at the age of 16. He read English literature at the University of Leeds, England, meeting his future wife, Janet, in a student production of Much Ado About Nothing. They were married in September, 1966, and came to Canada for a year that turned into 53 years. John completed an MA in English at McMaster University and a PhD in drama at the University of Toronto. He became an academic, not a professional actor, but theatre remained a vital part of his life. He was a professor of English and drama at the University of Toronto for 45 years.
John’s theatrical eye and set-building skills were put to good use renovating an old rooming-house he and Janet bought in the Roncesvalles area, almost sight unseen. Since the curmudgeonly owner would not allow anyone inside, they put in an offer “conditional on viewing the interior.” Later, their next home across town was admired for the roses he grew in the garden, and the deft paintwork and design inside.
John published three influential books and many papers on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He enjoyed exploring obscure archives, challenging received opinion and gently mocking academic pretensions. He didn’t take himself too seriously either. He kept a pair of cross-country skis in the corner of his suburban office, poised for escape whenever a snowy, sunny afternoon presented itself. And though he was an internationally renowned scholar, research trips were also for fun and for family.
Fifty-three years of married life weren’t always easy, but he and Janet had an enduring bond, sharing their deep love with two daughters and five grandchildren. John delighted in children, and they enjoyed his sense of whimsy and silliness. Yet he never underestimated a child’s capacity and would engage in conversations about books, art, music and life that naturally assumed a mutual interest and understanding. But even with his closest family, he said as little as he possibly could in a phone conversation and through his silence, you could hear his yearning for the call to end.
John was fit and active almost to the end of his life. He spent 25 happy seasons at the family cottage in Minden Hills – swimming, boating, hiking the local trails or just sitting in the sun on the dock with glass in hand. Last summer, while zipping along a bicycle trail through Prince Edward Island National Park, his younger daughter couldn’t keep up as he matched pace with his teenage grandsons. Last fall, he hiked 20 kilometres of the Ganaraska Trail with his older daughter. When the family closed up the cottage he said, as usual, “Goodbye cottage, see you next year.”
But John’s full life had a shockingly sudden end. His annual medical checkup in late October led to further testing. He pushed on with life as usual, though getting weaker and more fatigued, and in late November he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma. Chemotherapy was prescribed but he died of tumour lysis syndrome after the first treatment. It was devastating to lose him so quickly, but we are comforted that his illness did not last long. We will remember him with love forever.
Janet Astington is John’s widow; Susan Astington and Meg Edward are his daughters.
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