IN THE summer of 1945 I was one of the cast in Walter Oakeshott's production of Aeschylus's Oresteia which the classics department of St Paul's School was due to perform on speech day. One of us asked him what on earth our parents were going to make of it, being uninitiated into the mysteries of stichomythia, strophe and antistrophe. His reply combined sophistication and humour in a way that was characteristic of his relationship with his pupils: "I don't think you need to worry," he said, "my experience of semi-intellectuals, of whom our audience will be largely composed, is that if they see something they think they ought to like, they think they like it."
Not surprisingly, Walter was held in great affection by the boys he taught; his gentle, scholarly, diffident manner made him an unusual schoolmaster and an unlikely headmaster. No one could have been further from the traditional model of the stern authoritarian despot of public school fiction (and some public school fact as well). Perhaps we should have wondered how someone lacking those qualities could have reached such eminence, not only at St Paul's but also at Winchester, where he went on to teach in 1946. Schoolboys, however, are adept at accepting the improbable, and although the young are supposed to be distinguished by their curiosity, their lack of curiosity is often even more remarkable.
These unresolved anomalies must have been somewhere in the back of my head, because the moment I learnt that John Dancy was writing this biography I was agog to read it. Having done so, I realise that my old High Master was an even more gifted and impressive figure than we had suspected. As an assistant master at Winchester in 1934 he found a book in the school library which he identified as the manuscript - the only surviving manuscript - of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which was one of the great literary discoveries of the 20th century. His study of the illuminations in the great 12th century Winchester Bible is a small masterpiece of art history. And - hovering on the fringes of politics and sociology - he produced in the 1930s a field study of unemployment - Men Without Work - which has become a classic.
How did this sensitive, studious and scholarly side fit him for the leadership of two famous schools and an Oxford College? Professor Dancy gives the unravelling of this mystery the page-turning suspense of a whodunnit. He has not only had access to all the papers and numerous surviving friends, colleagues and pupils; as a pupil under Walter at Winchester and then as an assistant master there when Walter was head, he got to know and understand him well, and his own headmasterly experiences, at Lancing and Marlborough, supply him with the insights that make his interpretation so convincing.
Walter Oakeshott's great achievement as a headmaster was devising, organising and leading the evacuation of St Paul's from London to Crowthorne in 1939, one of the most successful of all the school evacuations of the war. But that apart, his work as headmaster and college head was not really happy. He hated confrontation and conflict; he lacked the simple certainties of the natural leader. He liked to operate by force of argument, not force of personality. Like Prospero, to him his library was dukedom large enough. He had sensitivity, intelligence, creativity and great charm, but he did not possess the self-confidence, egotism and dominant will that are needed to impose change on ancient institutions. He was perhaps nearer to being a great headmaster than a good one.
But above all, Walter Oakeshott was loveable and much loved, not least by Professor Dancy . But the biographer does not let the affection of a friend distort his judgement or unbalance his narrative in this masterpiece of sympathetic and scholarly storytelling.Reuse content