December 19, 2006

Address given at Peter Derow’s funeral

Posted at 3:39 pm in Elgin Marbles, Parthenon 2004

Dr Stephen Heyworth, a colleague of Peter Derow gave an address at his funeral last weekend which was both a moving & amusing insight into the life of the historian who had campaigned for the return of the Parthenon Marbles.
Peter had been a founding member of the Parthenon 2004 campaign, now known as Marbles Reunited.

Wadham College

Peter Derow

Well, the cat-in-the-hat, that legendary figure, is dead. I had better explain. I use that name not only because it avoids my having to make Peter the subject of that sentence, but also because the cat-in-the-hat crystallizes a number of things I want to say.

Firstly, Peter loved the Dr Seuss books, especially the first. And in his room, among the many other curiosities and toys, high up on the stack of videos, sits a figure of the cat-in-the-hat. More importantly, he was a great giver of gifts: I’m told he gave Cath Forrest, George’s daughter, her first camera and set her on the path to photography. One gift he often gave was copies of these books: he kept a stock for when he found a friend or a pupil who didn’t know them at all. So ten years ago, he gave a copy to my daughters; and on Friday afternoon last week, when we were thanking the two student hosts for looking after the candidates, Josie took away a bottle of the burgundy we’ll have a chance to drink later, and Sophie two Dr Seuss books. My daughters’ copy is inscribed in Peter’s beautiful italic hand: ‘To Lucy and Harriet from the funny dancing man’ [I think the dance was the one from Zorba, but I’ve not got time today to go into his love of films] ‘… from the funny dancing man a.k.a. … the Cat-in-the-Hat’. He loved the precise rhymes and the surprising rhythms of the books, but I suspect it was the anarchic morality of the narrative that appealed to him most: he truly knew how to have ‘fun that is funny’; and that’s what lies behind his self-identification with the cat-in-the-hat. But anarchic bringer of fun though he was, like the cat at the end of the book, he could also tidy up the mess; one would see him the morning after Classics drinks in the garden picking up glasses and cigarette butts; but I mean more than that-he gave his time and his care to helping us clear up the messes that we can all make of our own and each others’ lives. But I’ll return to that theme.

Peter was born on 11 April 1944 in Newport, Rhode Island to Sidney Derow and Elma Kari. He was their only child, and much loved. By the age of 14 he was already playing his guitar in Boston clubs. He attended Roxbury Latin School and then Amherst College. He met and married Ellan Odiorne while he was at Amherst (she was at the nearby Mount Holyoke), and Catherine was born in Amherst in 1965. He was a serious wrestler at this period, and when I was there in the early 90s, there was a picture of the team still up on the wall, with a very handsome and distinctly less hairy Peter amongst them. Once finished at Amherst, the three of them came to Oxford-to Wadham-where he did the old style Lit.Hum., Ancient History and Philosophy, in two years. His tutors were Ian Crombie, Michael Ayers, and George Forrest. Michael tells me that Peter’s philosophy essays were of a brevity usually associated with the weak student, but in Peter’s case written with lapidary sharpness. But it was Ancient History that particularly engaged him, and George Forrest became a huge and lasting influence, for example in Peter’s active involvement in the campaign to restore the Parthenon marbles to Greece.

Peter got his first in Schools, and the family returned to the United States, and to Princeton, where he did his doctorate. Elizabeth was born there; and then Paul after they moved to Toronto for Peter’s first academic job. But in 1977, when George Forrest was elected to the Wykeham chair and moved to New College, he got what must have been his dream-he came back to Wadham and took up his tutor’s old post. I suspect that everyone here has some sense of what that has meant for Peter, and for the college.

Some time after they came to Oxford, Peter separated from Ellan. He was married twice more, to Lucy Grieve and to Emma Dench, and it is a characteristic tribute to him, and to them, that they are all here, as is Rhiannon Ash. Despite the disruptions, he was a wonderful father to his children, encouraging, stimulating, and willing to listen.

At some point in the 1980s Peter moved into 2.6, George’s old rooms, which he must have had his eye on for some time. At first there was no kitchen, and the children remember dinner being cooked on a gas camping stove when they came to stay. He never burnt the quad down, and eventually a kitchen was put in, and anyway, with or without the kitchen, he loved those rooms. Over the years they were a haven for animals. The first cat, Muffin, was a badly injured stray who turned up at college and found a very comfortable home, Peter was most upset when she had to be put down, and her ashes are still in his rooms. Then there was the mouse-simply called Mouse. Peter told the story only last week of how the scout had warned him that there was a mouse around and traps were being placed. As he was closing the door at the start of a tutorial a mouse popped in, and so he picked it up and looked after it. He was especially proud that a field mouse of this kind was supposed according to the books to live not more than l8 months, but this one was still going strong five years later: fortunately Muffin couldn’t climb by this stage, so the two never met. Finally, and currently, there is Elizabeth’s former cat, Camille, who has been there since 2000. What a life she has had there! Sitting in on interviews and tutorials, eating only the best, drinking only filtered water, and sleeping by the fire with last year’s Examination Regulations as her pillow. If only we could get her to turn what she has heard into the book on Polybius.

So what did Peter do in Oxford? He taught Ancient History: the 6th and 5th centuries in Greek, and the whole of the late republic on the Roman side, with Polybius’s account of the growing domination of Rome as his special interest. He taught for Wadham, and for his second college, Keble, and many of the students there were people to whom he became very close. And in time he must have given tutorials for every college that takes people for the courses involving Ancient History.

Within Wadham a major concern was always the welfare of the staff; he knew everyone, and to those who were having difficulties of any kind he gave enormous support. He understood how vital the stability of this relationship between academics and staff is to the well-being of the college, and, though all of the Fellows may realize this, Peter always acted on it. He also knew an amazing range of students, not least through his work as a Counsellor, decade after decade of listening, and of helping people to find their own solution through the act of talking to him. Catherine has said similar things about Peter, as a rock, and a source of positive energy, who could help her (and others) to overcome what seemed insurmountable difficulties.

Administration was not to Peter’s taste (the anarchist again), but he did his stints as Chairman of the Sub-Faculty, and Director of Graduate Studies, and did them with commitment and concern for the individuals affected by his role. He seemed to examine virtually every year. More to his taste was his recent election as the Keeper of the Gardens: he claimed not to know any plants, but, as Catherine tells me, he was looking forward to learning the Latin names.

And all the time there was a rich and varied life, not separate from his academic one, but intermingled with it. When Paul was younger, Peter could often be found playing ball with him and friends in the private garden. He kept his ancient Fiat Panda running well enough to take him on his September trip to the Pyrenees each year, and if it stopped and needed repair on the way back, then so much the better: he would have the chance to speak French to the mechanic. Speaking French, and Italian and Greek on occasion too, was a constant delight to him, and a great contribution to the friendly greeting he would get in so many restaurants. He continued to play the guitar in his blue-grass band, and to listen to music of enormous variety, and sometimes, it must be said, at enormous volume. He drank too much burgundy, and smoked too many cigarettes (but not this year actually while interviewing candidates). And when he gave a party, it would be fun and it would be long.

For all his enjoyment of life, Peter lived for one main purpose, to be an Oxford tutor. Though he did some excellent research, he published little. His contribution was as a teacher. About some things he was clear, at least in his own mind: that single tutorials were best, that the ancient world had much to teach us about the present, that Herodotus was funny, that Polybius was the greatest historian of antiquity, that Cicero was a nasty piece of work. But the certainties were for him, and only over the big things, some principles by which students could orient themselves in his tutorials. Just because he wanted to give single tutorials, there was no reason why his colleague should, provided I had found a method of teaching that worked for me. And in tutorials (at least as I saw a version of his style in interviews) there was always a probing uncertainty in his asking of questions: even where he aimed for an expected answer, the unexpected answer might prove to be more worthwhile. It is striking how often in accounts of Peter as tutor, things that would be flaws for the rest of us turn up as virtues: the poor essay thrown on the fire, the collection not set, never mind marked, because it lessened pressure on a pupil who needed none. And this was possible because of the unique sense of his students as individuals that he had. In these things, and in his giving of encouragement, Peter was a model and an inspiration. Even those of us he was not formally tutoring have been well taught by him, to listen, to respect and to help each other.

Peter didn’t fear death, I think; he certainly feared it far less than he feared retirement. We had just finished interviewing the final year of entrants whom we expected him to see through to Schools, and so the threat of having to move out of his beloved home on staircase 2 was beginning to loom. It is a major consolation to the family that he never had to move. We had a very good week interviewing; when asked by one candidate at our informal gathering, ‘Do you hate this time of year?’, Peter replied, ‘No, I love it.’ He celebrated by going out with friends on Friday night, and was visited by Katherine Clarke, his dear Ancient History colleague, on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful day; he was happy, even gleeful, and relaxed. And after she left, he went down to the quad, suffered a heart attack and died instantly.

Take care.

Stephen Heyworth
16th December 2006

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