Our Chairman, William St Clair, died on the evening of 30th June 2021. In this post we share tributes that have been given in his honour, including by family and friends during his memorial at The Athenaeum on 23 July 2021, and by scholars whom he influenced with his pioneering work. Rest in peace William; you will be greatly missed.
Obituary in The Times on 10 September 2021
William's obituary in The Times can be read in full here (although William would not have approved of the paywall). The final paragraph concerns his involvement with Open Book Publishers:
From 2009, St Clair was chairman of Open Book Publishers. An expert in the history of copyright, he disapproved of academia's recent enthusiasm for paywalls. He was open about his disdain for restraints, whether institutional, marital or religious. It was under the Open Books imprint that he planned to publish his new 500-page book on the Parthenon. One chapter is written in the style of a speech by the 5th century BC statesman Pericles. At the time of his death, St Clair was adding his finishing touches to the book.
Obituary in The Telegraph on 22 September 2021
William's obituary in The Telegraph can be read in full here (although again, behind the much-disliked paywall). It includes mention of William's forthcoming book, as well as some of his qualities we recognise so well at OBP:
St Clair was widely known for his intellectual generosity, wit, forthright advice and invaluable tuition, whether to professional writers or graduate students.
Obituary by Professor Richard Holmes in TW 2021
William Linn St Clair was born in 1937 and came up to St John's in 1956 to read Literae Humaniores. He died in June 2021. We are grateful to Professor Richard Holmes for this appreciation.
William described himself in the records of the British Academy (to which he was elected in 1992) as 'an independent scholar'. He was most certainly that. But he was also a passionate Philhellene, a dauntless traveller, a sceptical Byronist, a formidable controversialist, a fearless explorer of lost archives, and an ebullient companion at a late-night supper. Over four decades he established himself as an original biographer of Romantic writers; but more than that, as a generous and Romantic friend and supporter of his fellow biographers. His name appears on innumerable Acknowledgement pages, my own included.
I first heard rumours of William St Clair as a mysterious, heroic lone figure striding over the Greek hillsides in the late 1960s. Given his wonderful early book, That Greece Might Still Be Free, to review for The Times in 1972, I found 'a brilliant and bitter history'. I have loved and admired his work ever since. I knew him, and also did not know him, for over forty years, and valued his kindness and learning, and faint air of mischief and mystery. I recently found an early postcard from him, dated April 1987, asking how my proposed book about Coleridge was progressing, offering 'a few scraps about him that might be of interest' (they certainly were) and concluding: 'Have you tried laudanum? I think it's your duty as a responsible biographer.'
That 'independent' academic career was distinguished. A quick but by no means complete summary would include his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1973, and his Visiting Fellowship at All Souls, 1981-82. Then followed his full Oxbridge Fellowships: at All Souls (1992-96) and at Trinity College, Cambridge (1999-2006). At that period, I recall a late-night research visit to the Codrington Library (as it then was) ending in William's silent but triumphal progress round the book stacks, pulled along in the wheeled book trolley like a royal chariot, while he pointed out the rare editions.
After 2007 he settled as Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, London University. I remember the big print of 'The Death of Byron at Missolonghi' on the wall of his tiny, book-packed office in Senate House, and the continuous stream of professors and PhD students visiting and asking his advice.
Independent also in matters of intellectual property, hating paywalls and commercially restricted book pricing, William became co-founder of Open Book Publishers. which gave so many young academics a chance at first, accessible publication – a list that now runs to over 250 titles.
His own books were remarkable, and diverse in every sense. He published his first study Lord Elgin and the Marbles in 1967, which became the standard account of the international plundering of the Parthenon sculptures. When reprinted in 1998, he added an explosive Chapter 24, giving a controversial and gleefully argued account of the British Museum's damaging stewardship, and recommending their return to Greece and the new museum at Athens.
Trelawny, the Incurable Romancer, 1997, wittily exposed the biographical mythmaking of Byron's freebooting companion, especially during the Greek War of Independence. It contains a nonchalent account of William's own investigative climb into Trelawny's piratical retreat, the notorious 'Black Hole', a huge cave set 90 feet up the sheer rockface of Mount Parnassus. William airily describes scaling an ancient iron ladder to reach its sheer, open ledge 'like the panoramic balcony of some fantastic alpine hotel'. (When I clambered up there twenty years later, supported by an ex-member of 2 PARA, I was almost paralysed with terror.)
The Godwins and the Shelleys, 1989, was again original in William's fearless expedition into the enormous Abinger archive in the Bodleian, stretching his biography across two Romantic generations, and revealing the shared inheritance of radical ideologies (both anarchist and feminist) between them. This included, incidentally, an exact record of how often Godwin and Wollstonecraft made love, by brilliant analysis of Godwin's ciphers in his manuscript diary, which no previous scholar had noticed. I associate this book with a memorable ideological supper in a small Italian restaurant off Victoria. William had invited Michael Foot (ex-Leader of the Labour Party, and passionate Byronist) to dine with his young nephew, the campaigning journalist Paul Foot (equally passionate author of Red Shelley). The four of us hotly debated Byron versus Shelley for several hours, with William chairing, until arguments became laughter and we were ushered out into the cool night air.
Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography, 2002, co-edited by William and Peter France, was an outstanding collection of essays surveying British biography within a European context. William's own contribution was 'The Biographer as Archeologist', a brilliant reflection on the contingent survival of biographical evidence. It contained a fine cautionary tale, telling how he had once tried, as a biographical experiment, to destroy the evidence of his own youthful diaries, by throwing them into a Scottish loch tied to a large stone. They were politely returned by post a few weeks later.
The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, 2004, was perhaps his most unexpected yet widely influential work, a huge 700-page source book rather than a single biography. It opens up a wholly new perspective on Romantic reception theory. It investigates how an entire national culture can be understood through 'quantative' study – book sales, book costs, print runs, new editions, copyright, book ownership and the transmission of ideas and intellectual property. In other words, apart from reviewers, who actually reads what, and when, and how? Packed with tables and statistics as well as anecdotes, it shows William at his most commanding, scholarly and comprehensive.
By contrast, The Grand Slave Emporium, 2006, is a short an impassioned study of Cape Coast Castle, the notorious British slave trade station on the West African coast. Long before the Black Lives Matter movement, it is another of William's sudden brilliant returns to forgotten biographical (and in this case naval) archives. Vivid, painful and intensely atmospheric, it investigates the appalling story of the trade, but includes the extraordinary Romantic tale of the betrayed and exiled poet Laetitia Landon ('the female Byron') who tragically died out there, almost forgotten until William rediscovered her.
William was committed to the idea of biographical justice, and loved a good controversy. Over the return of the Parthenon Marbles, of course; but also such things as whether Coleridge's supposed translation (1816) of Goethe's Faust, published as such by OUP (2007), could possibly be genuine. Crisp and charming, but also fearless in his talk, his characteristic interjection – 'Hmm? Hmm?' – briskly invited agreement or dissent. His eyes glittered behind his benign specs; but his smile was completely disarming. He was always prepared to disrupt a sleepy seminar, or an over-comfortable academic conference, with shrewd and sometimes disruptive questions. He had a Godwinian belief in intellectual honesty and the awkward truth. His big new book, Who Saved the Parthenon?, the subject of a lifetime's fascination, will be published by his Open Book Publishers this autumn 2021.
I shall always treasure our endless discussions of biography, and never forget his book-lined eyrie in Eaton Place, London, with its popping gas fire, its many first editions (Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, Conduct books), its haunting brooding portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft dominating one wall, but also his Oxford oars hung above the fireplace. He sent me a late email during the COVID-19 lockdown, remarking on a wild flower that had suddenly sprung up in a neighbour's abandoned window box. 'It is already two feet high. I like to think it is like the olive tree on the Acropolis which suddenly burst back into life in 480 BCE and is still there. – William.'
A tribute to William St Clair by Professor Anthony Snodgrass
At times, William St Clair seemed to have lived more than one life. Even in our supposedly 'globalised' age, it came as a revelation to many of his fellow campaigners for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, to learn that he was also an acclaimed literary and historical authority on the Romantic Era -- to the point where, on the strength of this, he had been elected a Fellow of the British Academy back in 1992. The same may have been partly true in reverse; and to both parties, it was surprising to find that he had served for years as a senior civil servant in the Treasury, whose research was at first a side-line. His later academic appointments are too numerous to list in detail here, but they covered Trinity College, Cambridge, All Souls at Oxford, the School of Advanced Study in London, Harvard and the Huntington Library in California.
With such a record, William must have seemed a 'safe' figure to the less progressive wing of the British Establishment (from which the Trustees of the British Museum were then often drawn): a scholarly, objective authority who could be relied on not to upset apple-carts. It must have come as a nasty shock to them when in 1998, to the third edition of his now thirty-year-old book Lord Elgin and the Marbles, he now added the explosive Chapter 24, entitled 'The Damage is Obvious and Cannot be Exaggerated' -- a quotation from the secret internal Board of Enquiry, set up by the Trustees in 1938 to investigate reports that over-zealous cleaning of the Marbles had seriously damaged them. What William had uncovered (but only after repeated requests under the Thirty Year Rule of the Public Record Act) was the full record of that near-forgotten scandal. He ended his chapter with an appeal for an honest, international inquiry into the events of 1938-39.
It is a reflection of his standing and influence that a version of such an inquiry was indeed set up within a year or so, but by the Museum itself, at the (creditable) instigation of its then Director, Robert Anderson. Attending this violently controversial event myself, I could hardly believe my ears when we heard one of the Museum's own Deputy Keepers, the late Ian Jenkins, say that 'the cleaning [of 1938] was a scandal, and its cover-up was another scandal'. It was William's victory that such words could now be openly uttered.
There are collections of plaster casts of the Parthenon Marbles all over Britain, and a few of them contain casts originally commissioned by Elgin himself, before any further effects of deterioration or damage could occur. One small such set was held by the University of Edinburgh, where I was then a Lecturer, and in the early 1960s I showed these to William. It was absolutely characteristic of his generosity and long memory that, when he published his third edition in 1998, he sent me -- otherwise still a stranger -- a signed copy in gratitude. After that, we quickly became friends; when I invited him to talk in Cambridge, it was a tribute of a different kind that the then Keeper of Greek and Roman, Dyfri Williams, travelled up from London especially to challenge him.
Eulogy of William St Clair by his brother David St Clair at The Athenaeum, 23rd July 2021
So good afternoon and thanks very much for coming. I’m going to say a few words about William. I don’t think he would have wanted just some hagiography or some recitation of his CV, which you can get on Wikipedia. So I thought I might try and suggest that there was quite a lot about William’s character and biography that resonated with the people whose biography he either wrote about or tried to.
Lord Byron; romanticist, rebel, immensely witty, but touched with melancholy. Shelley; revolutionary, atheist, unacknowledged legislator of the universe. Godwin; massive intellect, whose life rose and then fell, and then rose again. And then his good friend Arthur Miller, who was not only a very influential person in the twentieth century, but who was tinged with guilt, Jewish guilt, which is quite similar to Scottish Presbyterian guilt, having left his wife and two children for the glamour of Marilyn Monroe. But I am aware there is quite a lot of biographical expertise and creative writing expertise in the audience. One of William’s favourite quotes however was ‘if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly’.
So William was born on the 7th of December 1937, a date that was very easy to remember because four years later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and brought the United States into World War Two. He was born in London. His mother was an English teacher who had to give up work when she got married which is what you had to do in those days. She was a graduate of the University of Glasgow, avid reader, played the piano, sang contralto in choir. And our father who came from five brothers was, at the time, London representative of a group of Scottish foundries.
So he was one of five brothers (the one on the left was him). Trained as a draughtsman and very interested in pictures. And this one, anyone that’s been into William’s bedroom will have seen this one by Harlamoff. So it wasn’t just the usual Scottish dead pheasants, and highland cattle. And he was also very keen on the ballet. The Ballets Russes was in London at the time that they lived there. He went almost every night to watch the great and the good perform. But his biggest interest was mountaineering. Long before William was born he was keen on Lord Byron. “And ye mountains, why are you beautiful?” And this picture of Lord Byron was our father’s picture, not one that William bought. Again it was hung in William’s bedroom.They, both William and his father, were keen on mountains and hills. They weren’t so keen on the rustic, English countryside, which William used to say was so boring; cold houses, spiders in the bath.
William spent the first two years in London and then was evacuated back to Scotland. He nearly went to America with my mother, and it was all lined up, but they had cold feet and decided to stick it out. Happy childhood. He was very interested in magic. And this was part of his character; he loved mystery, suspense, trickery, bluff and counter-bluff and with his horn-rimmed round spectacles, you might even have thought he was Harry Potter.
And then when he was ten and a half his life was interrupted by John and myself arriving on the scene, which you can see from the pictures, changed his life. And it was a happy family, until our father died, when we were about five, from cancer. This I think had a profound effect on William’s life, because he was asked, along with my mother, to keep the diagnosis concealed from our father. And that bond between him and his mother, I think was too intense at that time. And I don’t think he wanted that degree of closeness to happen again.
So he went to Edinburgh Academy, a school that was actually set up during the Greek War of Independence to teach Greek, because you couldn’t get on in those days unless you knew Greek as well as Latin. And he was dux of the school, that’s academically top. And went to Oxford, St John’s, I think there are several St John’s people in the audience; well-known Oxford college. And he rowed in the first VIII and he was very proud of the fact that four years in a row they got four bumps, which meant you got an oar. And, yes, this is just him larking around. These oars, again, were in his bedroom; I’m assuming that not many people did go into his bedroom.
The other thing he did during his time at Oxford was go, with the help of a little local Scottish charity, on his first journey to Greece, where he went round all the famous classical sites and then actually went to Crete and saw the Mycenaean and Minoan remains.
And then when he graduated he joined the Admiralty. At that time when he was a civil servant, we had still a huge navy. And he got on well with the officers in Portsmouth, and they, as a prank, and I haven’t got the picture of William, allowed him to go on a breeches buoy between two destroyers, dressed in a bowler hat and umbrella.
When he was there he answered an advert in the Times, from a Mrs Longland in Abingdon, saying that I’ve got a lot of papers from my great grand uncle, Dr Hunt, who was on Lord Elgin’s first expedition to Greece, anyone interested and he answered it and said, yeah I’m very interested. And before we knew it he was married and he had produced this book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, remarkably fast. And it happened to be just at the time that I was dux of Edinburgh Academy myself, and I got it as a prize. You can imagine from the picture on the left-hand side, which is rather contrived, John made to admire my medal, and he’s got a couple of books, whereas I’ve got a stack of books.
And then he went on to have a nice happy family. Anna came along, and then Elizabeth. And then with a great deal of help from Heidi, who did all the translation from German, he produced this groundbreaking book called That Greece Might Still Be Free, which I should think many people in this room may have read.
And then the marriage broke up, and it’s not clear why the marriage broke up. Heidi said William found her boring, and my mother was more direct and said that literary fame had gone to his head, and he had been tempted to stray. Anyway he left Heidi but still had a long and wonderful relationship with the two children. He saw them every weekend and loved to go to their concerts where Anna played the violin, and Elizabeth the cello. And he was so proud when they both got into the University of Oxford and then this lovely picture of Anna in 1989 graduating.
His time at the Treasury was not as great as you might think. His career was stymied, and one of the reasons was that, like Sir Humphrey, he was looked upon when Margaret Thatcher came along as an amateur. Sir Humphrey had a degree from, Drummond is it…Balliol College Oxford?, with a first in Classics [Drummond Bone responds, ‘The tie makes it clear unfortunately yes’]. And it wasn’t just that William had a degree in Classics that defined him as an amateur, but a worse crime was that he wrote books, and he wrote for the Financial Times, so was a dilettante, as well as an amateur, and these sorts of types the Thatcher regime didn’t want.
He did make good friends with Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary, and they used to swap stories because he wrote about Lord Elgin’s son and about how he had sacked the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. And William and I actually visited the Old Summer Palace about fifteen years ago. We both happened to be in Beijing at the time, as these things happen. And we reckoned he’d done a really good job, it’s been a ruin and it’s part of the century of humiliation that the Chinese have held against the West.
While he was at the Treasury, he did produce this little book called Policy Evaluation, a critical look at the objectives and how they are being met. And it has these little bits of humour; Napoleon checking his objectives; Moscow, Trafalgar, Waterloo. And inside, assumptions, you can’t make an assumption if you’ve got a donkey being pushed from the back side and the front side, and carrots. And this book was translated into French, Turkish and Arabic. It did actually make an impact on civil servants across a large part of the world, and he was immensely proud of it.
This is just a letter from Amartya Sen to him whilst at the treasury, which if Dominic Cummings had met him the time, it would confirm that he needed to be sacked, because he mentions the Financial Times, reviewing his book, looking forward to reading his new book etc.
And his next book was The Godwins and the Shelleys and it was a massive book about one of the most remarkable families in the history of ideas. It reinforced a lot of people’s view that it was a remarkable family. It reinforced in my mother’s mind that the Bloomsbury set were over-rated lightweights. This picture of Mary Wollstonecraft used to be on William’s mantlepiece.
And then when he was in his early fifties, he developed severe coronary angina. He was just about to go to Turkey and I said don’t go to Turkey, see a doctor; he hated seeing doctors. And in fact he required quadruple coronary bypass surgery: the prognosis of someone at that time getting that, I think was about ten years and I think that’s what made him want to get on ever more with life and shortly after that he retired from the Treasury on a pension that most of us would like to have as a salary.
He went to All Souls College in Oxford, and became very, very involved politically. He became involved in PEN; I think he may have even been the president of PEN in Britain. Got to know lots of other PEN writers including Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller; who he wrote to shortly after the Godwin and Shelleys book and wrote saying ‘I’d like to write your biography, how’s about it?’, and Arthur said ‘Well I’m not going to say yes until I get to know you a bit better’. And they became very good friends, and met up with one another multiple times on both sides of the Atlantic. And he was at the filming of The Crucible when Arthur was by then quite an old man, eighty. That’s Daniel Day Lewis who played John Proctor, his [Miller's] son-in-law.
Around the same time, 1992, Elisabeth got married, and after that he jumped ship from Oxford to Cambridge, Trinity College. And then not long after that he produced the third edition of Lord Elgin and the Marbles, and this included the explosive chapter 24 where he revealed, after sixty years of secrecy, that Lord Duveen had brought his labourers in to give the Marbles a good scrubbing to make them nice and white before they went into his new gallery.
And at the time the minutes of the Trustees said ‘The damage is obvious and cannot be exaggerated’ - but the message to the public was that there had been some minor innovations about how they were cleaned but no-one, apart from experts, would notice the difference. And then, I think this is one of William’s biggest best put-downs.
‘Far from admitting that anything had gone badly wrong, the Trustees now tried to take credit for the firmness and speed of their response. By describing as ‘innovations’, methods of cleaning marble which would have disgraced a municipal cemetery, they gave the impression that they were solid, reliable, old-fashioned, conservatives who could be safely trusted not to be seduced from their duty by the wizardry of modern science’.
You can understand why he wasn’t liked. Around that time Mary Beard said ‘I’ve been asked to edit a series of books on the Wonders of the World, buildings and monuments and I’d like William for you to write a book. Not about the Parthenon, because I’m doing that, not about the Colosseum, because I’m doing that’. But Frances, who is in this room, can comment on how, eventually, he arrived at doing a book about Cape Coast Castle.
These are pictures showing how the family was growing up; and now he had four delightful grandchildren, all of which are here? No.
Then he produced this other massive book (The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period), and academics wrote to him saying ‘you know it’s not fair of you to write these big books, us professional academics can’t churn out big books like that’.
And around the same period Arthur Miller died. Inge his wife had actually predeceased him. All his diaries William had access to and were promised to him, and he was expecting to use them as the basis of a very innovative biography. But Andrew ‘the Jackal’ Wylie, who is a notorious literary executor, moved into the family and said don’t let William get near this stuff. And he turned Rebecca and Daniel Day Lewis against William. And that whole opportunity that I’m sure William would have done a fantastic job of, was cawed from his feet by the Jackal.
But he went on to do again a very innovative book about Cape Coast Castle, the home for one hundred and fifty years of the headquarters of the British slave trade in west Africa. That’s not William in the picture, that’s Barack Obama. What he managed to find was that all the records of those one hundred and fifty years were in the National Records Office in Kew that almost no-one had ever looked at.
So his life was rising like Godwin's a second time, and from there it never stopped. He founded this book publishers, because he was very against intellectual property, especially in the book trade, where every form of gouging and what have you, had been going on for hundreds of years. They’ve now got two hundred and fifty books on their catalogue. Not again liked by a lot of the establishment, people like Cambridge University Press who loved charging ninety quid for this that and the next thing.
And this is a nice picture of Alessandra and Rupert with William at Trinity where the publishers is based. And then around the same time he joined the School of Advanced Study and again made some wonderful friends where he stayed for many years. He also got involved, after the Elgin Marble scandal was revealed and became a fervent member of the committee for the restitution of the Marbles to Greece. These are some of the people that just a few years ago, were on the committee. Some of them you may know, Tom Flynn, Alexei Kaye Campbell and Janet Suzzman.
The grandchildren were growing up. And this is taken on William’s eightieth birthday. This is him with his two monozygotic twins with his nephews included.
I met him just about five weeks ago in this crowded room which never looked anything like a living room. We get Homes and Gardens and I’ve never seen a room like that in there. And then sadly on the 30th of June just a week after Paulina and William went to the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the founding of Jesus College he died. Paulina told me that William had said he was arm candy at the event.
But his legacy will live on. He’s got this massive book coming out later in the year. Drummond was going to introduce William at a key meeting in Edinburgh in November. And then William planned a book launch in Trinity… Not to be.
Dedication to William St Clair by Paulina Kewes at The Athenaeum, 23rd July 2021
Back in 1994, my age-old friend Don McKenzie, who was a professor of bibliography and textual criticism at Oxford, said that I ought to meet a Mr William St Clair, who was then a visiting fellow at All Souls and was giving a series of lectures that were related to the topic of my doctorate. And he introduced me to William who was incredibly helpful and lovely, and since I had a JRF (Junior Research Fellow) interview coming up, he asked if I would like a mock interview. So I turned up at All Souls and William opened the door wearing his gown, and pretended that he was introducing me to the whole panel. I was supposed to give a five- or seven-minute presentation of my research and I started talking, I may have even been reading, and he said ‘No no no it’s all wrong, you can’t do it like that. Stop!’ And I was incredibly upset, and he said ‘You can only say three things; and you have to be looking at the people, you can’t be reading’. So I scuttled back to my Jesus College digs and I started practicing, crouching in front of the mirror on the wardrobe. Then I cycled back to All Souls because he had agreed to give me another interview. And it obviously worked because I got the JRF and after the interview I returned All Souls to tell him how it had gone, and we drank a bottle or two of wine, and by the time I got back to my digs and the Master rang I was completely sloshed.
And that was really William, he never really pulled any punches. When you were wrong he always told you that you were wrong, that you should do it completely differently, that you should be more ambitious, that you shouldn’t settle for the little things, that you should be more expansive. And sometimes its difficult to take when you’re feeling a little insecure. I felt I was just a Polish student who might not have a future in this country, Poland was not part of the EU, and if someone tells you ‘go outside your patch and do something inter-disciplinary’, ‘think outside the box’, ‘what were they doing in Europe or elsewhere in the world?’, it is sometimes difficult but that is something that William has really taught me. And he was someone who could be a bit of a bear, he was unbelievably stubborn, and there were some things you just couldn’t get him to change, but at the same time he was incredibly kind and mild and generous.
Even in the last few months he was seeing one of my students to help her with her undergraduate dissertation. He was always incredibly generous to younger scholars, to students, and would spend hours helping them. And he was a mine of fascinating stories. David was speaking earlier about William’s time in the Civil Service, and one of his prize stories from when he was working at the Treasury was when he needed to find out something about the Treaty of Utrecht of 1731. He asked for a copy of it and his PA brought him the real damn thing!
Or when he was working for the OECD and went to Turkey; the idea was for him and the other experts to tell the people of Turkey how to Europeanise and do things properly, and one member of the delegation, I think from France, said she might be late and miss a flight, so the minister in charge stopped all proceedings and gave her a police cavalcade and rang the airport and got them to stop the flight so that she could get on. And that was completely contrary to what they were trying to teach people in Turkey. And William was always telling people what he thought; for example he fell out with the OECD; because he was trying to tell people in Portugal what they should really be doing and that didn’t go down terribly well. I think he fell out with people at All Souls because of what he said to them, and at Trinity he probably would have loved to have stayed longer but he was really very scathing about how they were running their accounts and fell out with the Bursar. But he always stood his ground.
And of course the prize exhibit was what he did about the Marbles, and the cleaning of the frieze that David was talking about. And his work was just so remarkably diverse, sorry I should not say work, whenever I asked him ‘What are you working on today?’, whether it was when he was in London or when he was staying with me in Oxford, he would say ‘I’m not working, I’m not working’. I would ask him ‘When are you going to finish your Parthenon book?’ and he would say ‘I’m not writing to anyone else’s deadlines. I’m going to finish when I want to finish, it’s my own schedule.’
Whenever he was doing research and scholarship he was pushing against boundaries. He was on the one hand incredibly bold, ambitious and completely unfettered by disciplinary boundaries, but at the same time he could be incredibly humble. He would go to seminars; Classics seminars in London, Archeology seminars with students, and he was a very humble member of the group. But on the other hand he went to some at the Institute of English Studies and somebody was basically telling porkies, talking tosh, and he would probe and question, and then could never understand why they were a bit livid at the end, that he questioned what they said, but he didn’t mean to be hostile, he wasn’t going to be a bulldog, he was just going to ask the question that was fundamental to whatever they were doing.
In absolutely personal terms he was hugely generous, he was kind, he could be really really lovely and when I was ill, I got ill when I was in America, he said ‘Oh why don’t you just come and stay with me when you are on chemo at the Royal Marsden?’. He sat with me through all my chemo sessions and all my consultations, and he would be sitting with me on this little plastic seat and tapping away on his computer as I was sleeping away. But he could also get fed up. Obviously I was kind of depressed, I had lost my hair, my eyebrows, and I was whinging. And there was one time when we were coming back from the theatre the day before chemo and I was just whinging and he said ‘you know it’s not really pleasant to be with you when you are like that?’ And that sort of taught me to zip up and stop complaining. He didn’t like when you complained and he didn’t like when you said anything critical about anyone. So when I was whinging about colleagues, you could see his face sort of contract. He wasn’t going to sympathise with you if you were complaining about other people because I think that in his mind it reflected badly upon you that you felt that someone wasn’t nice or good.
And he was also an absolutely wonderful and intrepid traveller. We started travelling after I was ill and he offered if I would like to come to central Athens for a few days. Basically the deal was he told me what he wanted to see and where he wanted to go, and I booked the tickets and the hotel and did all the sort of menial stuff. When we went to places it was quite a struggle to convince him that the first thing we needed to do was get some food and water so that when we went off for the day and were in the middle of nowhere we could actually get some lunch. And when the lunch came he quite enjoyed it.
He knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be. When we were in Sparta and had gone to Mystras it was quite a long trip, and we walked all the way down and I was completely exhausted and just wanted to go back to the hotel. But ‘no no no I need to see what the course of the river is, and this is significant for my book’. And that was that. I had to scurry back to the hotel on my own because William wanted to see where the damn river went.
But it proved a point that would be vital for the book, and the book will be absolutely magnificent. He was working so hard on it until the very last day and he made so many discoveries. David mentioned his discoveries about the Elgin Marbles and the archive in Kew for the Grand Slave Emporium. Well you will be amazed when you see how much he has discovered for the book about the Parthenon. It’s not just about how the Marbles were saved, but how the Parthenon was saved. It was because one of the British ambassadors had written to his Ottoman counterpart to say ‘If you don’t fire at the Acropolis you’re going to have a seat at the table of the civilised nations’. And they didn’t. He also discovered there was going to be a replica Parthenon in Trafalgar Square; I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing that it hasn’t been built.
Just a few days before he died, he loved the word scoop or scooplet, he had another scooplet. He was talking about the orations of ancient Greece, and the Pericles funeral oration, and the way Pericles looked at the head. All the iconic images of Pericles have the head elongated, and there is the helmet, and William had a hunch that it was to do with the swaddling of male babies in ancient Greece, and the swaddling of the head. He had a hunch he would find something in Hippocrates, and so off he went to Blackwells, and came back with the relevant book of Hippocrates, the one he said was not apocryphal, the one he said was actually written by Hippocrates. And there it was, they did swaddle babies’ heads.
And when we traveled, on the one hand you might think he was completely otherworldly, that you had to make sure there was food and there was drink. But there were other moments in Greece where you would think that he was absolutely indispensable. When we were in Sparta and wanted to go to Olympia, you have to take a bus to Tripoli first, so we rock up at the bus station and I go to the ticket counter and ask for two tickets on the 8am bus to Tripoli. And the woman says ‘Sold out…When is the next bus?…9am….Can I get two tickets to that?…Sold out’ and I’m tearing my hair out, and at the taxi stand all the taxi drivers are in on it and they quote you some absolutely crazy sum of money to take you to Olympia. Well William was completely calm and said let’s just stand here, and I said ‘What do you mean just stand here? We need to do something!’ So we stand for about twenty-five minutes, and the 8am comes and has loaded up all the luggage and everything and is completely full. And then the driver looks up and says ‘do you want to go but you’ll have to stand?’. So of course we say yes we want to go. And we went on the 8am bus. And this was just the way it was with William. He always knew what to do or what to say to people. Similar when we went to Epidaurus, everyone just wanted to see the theatre and William really wanted to see the ruins of a Byzantine basilica. There were brambles and rubbish but we did get there and that was the most important thing, not the sort of beaten tourist path.
And his work on the book was being appreciated just a few days before he died. He told me ‘I have some news, I’ve been awarded a medal by the Greeks’. He told me it’s going to be ten thousand dollars and he will be able to decide who to give the money to, and so we had this long discussion about whether he should give it to the Classics Library in London or the British School in Athens or to split it. And later in the day when we caught up at lunch, he said actually he had misread the email and was just getting a medal. The three people who are getting the ten thousand dollars to give out are John Kerry from America and somebody else. But he was still very happy to get the Byron medal.
Similarly there was somebody called Constantine, a Greek from Switzerland, who asked William whether he could see William’s little card where William had prepared a list of all the Philhellenes who were involved in the War of Independence. And William enabled him to get all of this photographed for Constantine’s book. And the book was published, based on William’s records, and arrived and William was a bit miffed; there was nothing in the acknowledgements or in the title page acknowledging him. Then he looked in the preface and there it was, he was being described as the Nestor of Greek Studies. And he really loved this idea of being the Nestor of Greek Studies and was really dining out on this recently.
And he was working and working and working, and talking and thinking and writing till the very last moment. Another book that he ordered, arrived at my house just yesterday; he was buying things and was going to libraries and one day when he was in London for a check-up, he said he needed a book from the top shelf, he knew exactly where it was on the top shelf, and knew better than to go on the ladder, so he was poking with a broomstick and it came down and he got it but the lamp next to it broke as well; but that wasn’t really a problem for William.
And until the last minute he was just so completely caught up in the book. I think it was just the day before he died, and I don’t think many of you will know, but one of the chapters in the book is written in the form of a Thucydidean speech, as if it were something like a Periclean oration, where the speaker addresses the Athenians. And William said, ‘Well I was going to open the Thucydidean speech saying "Oh men of Athens" but I’ve now come across some source which is later and I think that I’ll now say "Oh fellow citizens"’. And I said ‘no that’s not quite right, men of Athens is better’ because firstly they were all men (women were excluded from any governance, as were slaves), but also because Athens identifies the place. And William didn’t like being criticised and he said ‘no no no it should be fellow citizens’. When we met later for lunch he said ‘okay I’ve put back "oh men of Athens"’. And that was the end of the story.
David already mentioned that William came to the Jesus College anniversary service, and although neither of us were religious, I wanted to go because I was heavily involved in organising the celebrations. And it was really lovely of him to come, and he said to Anna on the phone ‘Well Paulina wants me to come to the service, she obviously needs some arm candy.’ And he was the best arm candy that one could possibly imagine. The picture you see here is the 30th of June when we went to dinner at my friend’s, and this is just a typical William pose. He dressed up and I didn’t even know that he was going to dress up like this. Because there was a Zoom conference, and when I came out I said ‘Hey William are you ready to go?’, and there he was in this beautiful silk tie and white shirt. And I said ‘we’re just going round the corner to friends’, and he insisted ‘no no no I want to be dressed like this’.
And it was really wonderful because we had a great time and we were talking about the trip to Greece that we were planning to go on in late August, and then again in October. I wanted to do some beach holiday and William wanted to do sightseeing and to go to Paphos. And I hope he had a really lovely last day. He collapsed as we were walking back from the dinner and was apologising all the way for being a bit slow.
I want to conclude by reading out a poem which William recited, and he always had tears in his eyes when he recited it, especially when his dear dear friend John Stallworthy had passed.
They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remember’d how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, the nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away but them he cannot take.
Dedication to William St Clair from his brother John St Clair at The Athenaeum, 23rd July 2021
I could never compete with my brothers and I don’t think I can compete with David’s wonderful talk. I was just going to read, although Paulina’s already beaten me to it, a few passages from Thucydides, his speech attributed to Pericles, lamenting the dead in the Peloponnesian war. William admired it, and I think it encapsulates quite a lot of his public ideals and his private ideals, that he aspired to. Didn’t always succeed but he aspired to them and that is what ideals are for.
But before I go there I should mention first, there is a reason I have chosen that passage. The last time that I was in The Athenaeum, William organised a book launch for a book that we had written as an act of piety for my uncle that had fought in the First World War. And during that time, we had long discussions about the best way to memorialise people. And we saw all these pictures of this huge building programme, post-war, that took place on the Western Front, and we thought that this was really just a waste of time. Stop building monuments. And we thought of Odysseus shouting at Polyphemus, remember the name, remember the name. If your name can only carry on, some of you lasts. And we thought that was idolatry. And then Rudyard Kipling chooses from the book of Ecclesiasticus, their name liveth forever more. Again we thought that was rubbish.
And it just happened that around that time, we went to the war memorial in Edinburgh Castle, and came across the most, what we thought, moving inscription. And I’m going to just quote what they say in this book about the memorial; the most moving one is the one for the Royal Scots Fusiliers and this was the regiment that Churchill was exiled to when he left the cabinet in 1916, when the results of the Gallipoli campaign came out. And we think he was probably behind this war memorial. I wrote to the keeper of the memorial shortly after, asking about this but, typical archivist, there was no reply.
So I didn’t pursue it any further, but we know that Churchill was given a copy of Thucydides by Lloyd George just before he went to the Western Front. And this book says that perhaps the outstanding achievement of the regiment of the Royal Scots Fusiliers during these years was the defence by the Second Battalion for ten whole days against overwhelming odds in the first battle of Ypres. But for this the whole line could have crumbled and the enemy could have broken through and got to the channel ports. The most notable feature of this memorial, perhaps the most beautiful memorial of them all, is a space in the centre surrounded by a carved wreath of laurel devoted to a passage from Pericles historic oration, quoted by Thucydides, upon the Athenians who had perished in the Peloponnesian War.
And this is the inscription:
"the whole earth is the tomb of heroic men, and their stories not graven in stone over their claim, but abides everywhere without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives."
It was this expression, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives, that was coined by Alfred Zimmerman, who was the Professor of International Relations at Oxford between the wars. I think he was actually at New College, but that’s not really relevant to this. But woven into the stuff of other men’s lives; this expression is now standard in all translations of Thucydides.
And it just happened that shortly after we had visited and seen this memorial, (David has already mentioned William’s friend Arthur Miller) Arthur Miller’s wife, Inge Morath died and Arthur Miller was asking William is there any consolation and, William being a good god fearing atheist, said ‘no’. And then he hesitated and said ‘Well there is some consolation. She had a very wonderful and meaningful life’ and then this passage from Pericles came back, ‘but she does live on woven into the stuff of other men’s lives’, and that seems to have struck a chord with Arthur Miller because he kept mentioning it years afterwards, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen this particular bit from Pericles.
I had three or four passages, but I think you’re probably getting bored with this St Clair double act - we’re not technically a double act - but it may come across as that.
So I’ll maybe give you two of them, the first is about respect for people’s private lives, of which David told you all about, quite how important this principle was. So Pericles says:
“let me say that our system of government doesn’t copy the institutions of our neighbours; it’s more the case of ours being a model to others than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because powers are in the hands not of a minority but the whole people. When it is a matter of settling private disputes, everybody is equal before the law, when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability a man possesses.”
I’m not sure if the Tory party has been reading this recently.
“No one so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty, and just as our political life is free and open , so is our day to day life and in our relationships with each other, we don’t get into a state with our next door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way. Nor do we give him the sort of black looks, which though they may not do him any real harm still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives. But in public there is a need keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.”
So that is the ideal that the private life is meant to be private. I know that it is posthumous that my brother shed some life on William’s private life, but that was more an honour to the dead. And there is another passage in this address where he compares Athens to Sparta -- we don’t go in for military training. The Edinburgh Academy never had a CCF until you couldn’t get into the army unless you’d been in the CCF. It didn’t believe in military training the way that Sparta did. It believed in courage and elan and breeding and a liberal education.
So I think I’ll just end with the passage about woven into the stuff of other men’s lives. What he says is:
‘what I would prefer is that you fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her, (this is addressing the people who are widows or orphans of soldiers who have been killed). So think of the city and that will help you take your attention away from your bereavement. When you realise her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure. Men who knew their duty. Men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise they made up their minds that at any rate the city shouldn’t find the courage lacking to her. And they gave to her the best contributions to her they could. They gave her their lives. To her and to all of us and for their own selves they won praises, that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchres, not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid but where their glory remains, eternal in men’s minds.”
And then he goes on to say that monuments all over are to heroic men, but their monument is not made of bronze or clay but it is that they are woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.
And the very final, and then you can get back to carousing or whatever you do in your private lives, I’m going to quote this book William had as a teenager. It is a book of the Roman poet Catullus’s poems and I came across this poem of Catullus, and it moved me. And I hoped I would never have to quote it. But Catullus wrote a poem, 101, to his dead brother.
And it says that
Multās per gentēs et multa per aequora vectus
I’ve travelled through many nations and over many seas to come to my brother’s funeral.
But he ends it by saying
accipe frāternō, multum mānantia flētū,
which means receive fraternal,
And then by saying
Atque in perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē.
And for those that are not so quick off the old Latin as you used to be, that means…
please my brother, receive these rites, drenched in your brother’s tears, and forever my brother, hail and farewell.
Catullus’s poem 101
Multās per gentēs et multa per aequora vectus
adveniō hās miserās, frāter, ad īnferiās,
ut tē postrēmō dōnārem mūnere mortis
et mūtam nequīquam alloquerer cinerem
quandōquidem fortūna mihi tētē abstulit ipsum
heu miser indignē frāter adempte mihi
nunc tamen intereā haec, prīscō quae mōre parentum
trādita sunt tristī mūnere ad īnferiās,
accipe frāternō multum mānantia flētū.
Atque in perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē.
Carried through many nations and over many seas,
I arrive, brother, for these wretched funeral rites
so that I might present you with the last tribute of death
and speak in vain to silent ash,
since Fortune has carried you, yourself, away from me.1
Alas, poor brother, unfairly taken away from me,
now in the meantime, nevertheless, these things which in the ancient custom of ancestors
are handed over as a sad tribute to the rites,
receive, dripping much with brotherly weeping.
And forever, brother, hail and farewell.