Tom

 

I was in Moscow, and a young Old Mertonian was produced for my benefit. He had not been a pupil of Tom's but mentioned that when he was at Merton, the buzz among the undergraduates was that Tom was the best tutor to have. This needs to be said, because it was not always said. In his very first year Tom shared with me a pupil, who after getting his well-deserved Second, wrote to me, saying that the only reason he could think of why he had not got a First was that his tutors had failed to set him essays on the questions the examiners were going to ask. It is one of the deep fracture points in the idea of Oxford, the tension between the Oxford as a knowledge factory churning out useful information and manufacturing high-class graduates, and the Oxford that is the place where one wants to be because of the people who are there, and their wit, spontaneity, imagination, sympathy and understanding. Tom was one of those peoplw. He was a person it was fun to be with---not only fun, but often a privilege: to be with him was a mind-enlarging experience. He was always seeing all sorts of analogies, perpetualy perpetrating puns, conjuring up impossible rhymes, that came scintillating forth, inspiring everyone else to scintillate too.

It did not go down well with grey academics, who would mutter ``Don't scintillate: just get on with it.'' They had a point. Tom didn't publish much, though he helped many others to publish. It grieved him greatly that he had not written a big book; he felt he had let his father down in not getting a doctorate. But to get a book written, one has to be determinedly dull. Tom's critics thought that he lacked determination, but it was really a lack of dullness that got in the way of completion. I remember walking with Tom along deep Devon lanes, trying to provide the dullness so that some brilliant insights about Greek history might see the light of day in an article that could be read by colleagues---but to no avail; as soon as we had structured the opening paragraph, some new question had bubbled up---how Herodotus could possibly have known some item he had reported as a fact---and a whole new article, equally fascinating but definitely different was beginning to take shape, only to be discarded, unwritten when yet a third idea floated into his mind. His failure to get things finished was not the procrastination of a weak will but the indigestion of an over-full mind, always brimmimg over with fresh ideas.

Pupils benefited greatly. What they lacked in revision notes they more than made up with novel insights and comparisons, which made Ancient History not just a subject for Finals but an education in humanity. Nor should it be conceded that Tom's unorthodox punt tutorials, working lunches, Roman feasts were ineffective in purely Norringtonian terms: Tom's pupils did well in Schools, because in Tom they had not a seventh-form schoolmaster, but a friend and an inspiration, who led them to explore with him the world of ideas. In proof of this, if I may adapt Wren's epitaph, I say

Si testimonium requiris, circumspice

 

Tom was not only a tutor. As a Fellow of the College and a member of Congregation he took a keen interest in the environment and its beauty. Many Fellows were irritated when he raised questions about gas lights in Merton Street or trees in Cispotamia, just as earlier others had found objectionable his objecting to a road across Christ Church Meadow. But we remember Tom now as one of those who have handed on to us an Oxford, still beautiful in parts, and in others much less ugly than would otherwise have been the case.

Tom was a wit. His many witticisms, jokes, limericks, clerihues and Christmas competitions in The Oxford Magazine endeared him to a wide audience. One of his after-dinner speeches found it way into an anthology along with others by Chaucer, Shakespeare and her Majesty, the Queen. I like to think of Tom after the example of Disraeli, at some royal function, murmuring ``We authors, Ma'am''. The opportunity might even have come to pass, had Tom's pupils been more successful in their scheming. They were ever solicitous, as undergraduates are wont to be, of their tutors' welfare, and knew that Tom longed to find a wife; they came to the conclusion that Princess Margaret, who had recently split up from Lord Snowdon, would be fitting match. They put their project to Tom, indicating that he should invite the Princess to Merton, whereupon they would be so extremely well-behaved that she would leap at the chance of becoming a don's wife. But Tom, without a moment's hesitation, declined, saying that he could not begin a course of action that might end with progeny bearing the name of Braun-Windsor.

 

Tom was a perfectionist. I remember driving him and Jasper Griffin down the Cowley Road to give a bottle of champagne to our Ancient History tutor, Russell Meiggs. Obviously it must be presented with a dedicatory ode. Two carefully crafted Alcaics were found wanting and thrown out as the passed the Regal cinema, Elegiac couplets were composed, but rejected, the hexameters failing to negotiate the Ring Road, and the pentameters jettisoned at the Cowley Works, with Hendecasyllables finally fashioned to perfection as we arrived at Garsington. Likewise with the Latin Sermon, which it fell to Tom to preach when Merton's turn came round, was polished and re-polished, until it was the very best that Merton could present to the University and the Almighty. Some colleagues murmured that this was an improper expenditure of academic effort. I will not controvert them here; but I will note one unintended consequence some years later, when the University Press was on strike, and the Roman History papers for Greats had not been printed. Tom, with his xeroxing skills honed on the Latin Sermon, stayed up all night and by half past nine the next morning every candidate had on his desk a Roman History question paper, legible and complete.

Tom suffered from many internalised conflicts. He carried the scars of his early years, living under the Nazi menace in Germany, escaping to England, his father being interned as an enemy alien, his being separated from his mother by the Blitz, and being evacuated on his own to unknown surroundings. That this could be done to him even in England engendered in him a deep distrust of authorities and a permanent propensity not to get on with them. There were faults on both sides. But his inability to get on with authority had as its counterpoise his great ability to get on with un-authority. He was immensely kind, and unstintingly generous with his time. He knew every scout and college servant, and knew about them, and was concerned with their well-being, taking care to find out what Christmas present each would like. And just as to Oxford he gave much fun, and made it a place where one wanted to be, so to Merton he gave a warmth which made it a family to which one wanted to belong.