December 22, 2006

Peter Derow obituary

Posted at 3:48 pm in Parthenon 2004

An obituary of Peter Derow from The Independent by the historian Thomas Harrison.

The Independent

21 December 2006 10:52
P. S. Derow
Oxford ancient historian
Published: 21 December 2006

Peter Sidney Derow, historian: born Newport, Rhode Island 11 April 1944; Hody Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History, Wadham College, Oxford 1977-2006; married first Ellan Odiorne (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Lucy Grieve (marriage dissolved), third Emma Dench (marriage dissolved); died Oxford 9 December 2006.

P. S. Derow was a specialist in the history of the Hellenistic world, who was well known for a number of acute and powerful contributions to the history of Rome’s conquest of the Greeks. He was most recognised, however, as an outstanding Oxford tutor – who inspired the careers of an extraordinary proportion of those ancient historians and classicists active today.

Despite himself becoming an (anti-establishment) institution in Oxford, Derow was in origin an outsider. His precise origins were a source of fascination to his undergraduates, with some mistaking his mid-Atlantic accent as Irish. He was born Peter Sidney Derow, in 1944 in Newport, Rhode Island, and brought up an only child in Massachusetts, in the town of Newton. At Amherst College, where he studied for his first degree, he was a champion wrestler (something detectable in the vigorous bear hugs that he gave in later years), and from his teenage years he played the guitar in the bars of Cambridge.

He might have pursued music professionally (he played in a bluegrass band until his death), but instead he came to take a second BA at Wadham College, Oxford – where, decisively, he fell under the spell of the then ancient history tutor, George Forrest. He returned to the US to study for his PhD at Princeton under C. Bradford Welles. He then taught for a brief period at the University of Toronto, adopting Canadian citizenship, before returning to Wadham in 1977 to take Forrest’s place after his move to the Wykeham Chair of Ancient History.

Forrest’s influence was evident not only in intellectual terms (a focus on the inscriptions of Chios and the concisely crafted character of his written work). It extended to a love of opera (and to playing it loudly), to billiards (his rooms, like Forrest’s, were equipped with a billiard table), and to the intense belief in the tutorial as the ideal form of teaching. Teaching, for Derow, should be done with no more than two people in a room.

Tutorials were almost ritualistic affairs. A knock on the door was met with the response (repeated five minutes later) “Two minutes”. When you were allowed in, you would be met with a little bear wave, a short social preamble by the billiard table, and an offer of a drink (in the evening or before lunchtime, vermouth, wine or retsina; otherwise coffee, often tasting of Fairy Liquid).

Only then did you get down to the business of reading your essay, on facing brown foam sofas that left him and you squatting only inches from the floor, and with Derow looking intently over his half-moon glasses, taking precise notes and rolling cigarettes on a small machine. Each essay was met with the same response – a muttered “mmm, yehhhss, goooood” – so carefully calibrated in tone that you always knew if it betrayed disappointment or enthusiasm. Discussion then moved slowly up and out, as one was confronted with texts or maps. (Maps were an obsession: Derow never went anywhere without a compass, and his lecture courses involved map-colouring competitions.) Only exceptionally did the tutorial stay within the allotted hour.

Students were mesmerised by the props: a gold cockerel, a Cat in the Hat, and nautical paraphernalia that he had inherited from his father, a US Navy surgeon. Two animals also played a part: Muffin, a stray cat who had landed on her feet, and Mouse, to whom he had given a home on hearing that traps were being laid. Everything contributed to an atmosphere of genial concentration. Attempts at bluff would be clinically and kindly exposed, and you were aware of strong opinions: on Polybius as the supreme historian from antiquity, or the regrettable nature of the rise of Rome (two leitmotifs of his published work).

At the same time, however – and even though he might have been teaching the same topic for the nth time that week – there was always a sense of playful discovery. You had the impression that you were heading out into uncharted waters, and that by careful rearranging of the scarce evidence for, say, the reforms of the Athenian Ephialtes, you too could trump the modern authorities. Doing research, he told me, was like being a walrus ploughing through the oceans: one had to point one’s moustache in the direction of the greatest concentration of plankton.

With his catholic taste in music (Theodorakis, Verdi, bluegrass, Kinky Friedman, the Pogues), and a love of wine, especially burgundy (Derow could often be seen with bottles bulging from both pockets of his corduroy jacket), Classics parties were notorious and fun. His hospitality was never indiscriminate, however (gatecrashers were quickly dispatched), but reflected his desire and ability to engage with all his students as individuals.

As with the college staff, for whom he frequently intervened and whom he counted as friends, he went to enormous trouble for his students. When he deemed, for example, on the basis of the marks, that his fellow finals examiners had been unable to read one student’s handwriting, he took the scripts away to type them up himself. He was even not above stepping in to help in college sports: he turned out for the college second pool team, and was a talented goal-hanger in mixed lacrosse. He kept in touch with a huge range of his former pupils.

With all his conviviality, Peter Derow was also an intensely private, even an opaque, figure. Each September he escaped to the solitude of the Pyrenees. He collapsed and died suddenly of a heart attack in the front quad of Wadham, the college in which he had worked and lived for most of three decades.

Thomas Harrison

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