Obituary: Professor F. W. Clayton

FRED CLAYTON was a precociously brilliant scholar, "the most learned man I ever met" as his King's contemporary Alan Turing put it. He knew more about Shakespeare's use of Latin authors than anyone else alive, and yet hardly anyone in the field of Shakespeare scholarship had ever heard of him. What explains that paradox is something peculiar to his generation - a life of three acts, of which the second and most formative was war.

Small, fair and with piercing blue eyes, Frederick William Clayton was a scholarship boy at Liverpool Collegiate School, where he did Classics and was "trained like a racehorse" for his Cambridge Open Scholarship. At King's, he took the fences in his stride - Porson Prize, Browne Medal for Greek Epigram, Craven Scholarship, Chancellor's Medals both for Classics and for English Verse - and away from his books his success was no less meteoric. "Did I run into King's best period for friendly dons and fellow students?" he wondered many years later. "Did I conquer the place by being so novel - so naive but potentially promising?" At any rate, Maynard Keynes took up the brilliant young Liverpudlian and made sure that he met such people as T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster when they dined in college.

But Clayton was always acutely conscious of his background, suspicious of those who traded on style and social charm. In the intensely political world of mid-Thirties Cambridge he had no patience with Etonians like Guy Burgess pontificating about the English working class. Those who thought he would be naturally sympathetic to Communism found that he resisted their attempts to recruit him for the Party: "I didn't like their tactics. I didn't like being encircled."

King's gave him a Prize Fellowship in 1937 (for a dissertation on Gibbon), and he went to perfect his German in a teaching post at the Kreuzschule in Dresden, where he saw Nazism at first hand. He and Turing were instrumental in getting two young Austrian refugees to safety just before war broke out, an episode used in fictional form in his novel The Cloven Pine, published under the pseudonym of "Frank Clare" in 1942.

By then Act Two had begun. Clayton had joined the Royal Signals in 1940, and with his fluent German found himself decoding at Bletchley Park. But after the fall of Singapore code-breakers were urgently needed in the East; someone had to fill the gap until Japanese-speakers could be trained. Feeling he had had a soft war, Clayton agreed to go. Half a century later he remembered the journey:

Poole, Shannon, Lisbon, Bathurst, Freetown, Lagos, Bangui, Stanleyville, Juba, Khartoum, Wadi Haifa, Cairo, Dead Sea, Habaniya, Basra, Bahrain, somewhere in Baluchistan, Karachi, Gwalior, then on the 10th day by train to Delhi, where no one knew who I was or what I was supposed to be doing.

He had one book in his pack - the Corpus Poetarum Latinorum, plain texts without benefit of commentary.

With no Japanese, only the verbal skills of a classicist, Squadron Leader Clayton (RAF Intelligence) was soon shuttling between Delhi and Barrackpore in Bengal, his services fought over by two rival colonels. "The war, one might say, made guessing my game, if you call it guessing, and not the imagination and logic of a verbal mind pushed to its limits." Pushed to its limits in other ways too, for when Clayton eventually returned to England early in 1946 it was with a serious mental breakdown. He recovered, and returned to academic life, but the war had marked him irreversibly.

Dresden was now in ruins, but Clayton made contact with the family he had stayed with a decade before, and in 1948 he married Friederike (Ricky), the youngest daughter. They had four children, and a family life that brought him the love and stability he needed. In the same year he was appointed Professor of Classics at the University College of the South- West, which in 1955 became the University of Exeter. That was stability too; he served as Dean of Arts (1962-65), and for eight years (1965-73) was Public Orator, long remembered for the erudition and elegance of his speeches.

But where was the brilliant boy? Fred Clayton's head was full of Latin poets, and English poets and novelists too; everything he had read to stave off boredom in 1942-46 was still there, along with his own traumas, preserved by a phenomenal memory ("I'm not blest with a good obliterator") and inter-reacting in unexpected ways. "It was about 1950 when I first noticed in both Latin and English that there were curious apparent echoes of quotations, conscious or unconscious, inside a single author or between authors, based on associated ideas or words." Two particular areas came to fascinate him: Horace's use of astrology, and Shakespeare's use of the Latin poets. The trouble was, the way his mind worked didn't suit academic conventions.

Clayton always felt bitter about those friends and colleagues who had stayed at Bletchley Park and been able to get on with academic work in their spare time. When one of them, at a seminar in Cambridge, dismissed his suggestions about Horace with open contempt, Clayton was so wounded that he never risked airing them in public again. He worked obsessively with concordances, trying to prove, in those pre-computer days, that the collocations of word and phrase that leaped out at him were not merely random. "If ever I publish a book," he said later, "I shall give it as sub-title `A Consideration of Coincidences'."

But there was no chance that he would ever publish a book. His mind was too three-dimensional for that, the associations ramifying in all directions. The one published sample of his Shakespearean investigations, a public lecture on the sources of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is wonderful but at the same time impossible, mixing memoir, self-justification and virtuoso word-play in a performance that demands the work of a scholiast to pick out the key passages (in Claudian, Juvenal and elsewhere) on which the argument depends:

Tragic, comic, beautiful, sacred and profane meet in a magic circle of imprisoning memories . . . There is a rash leaping to conclusions over wide gulfs which any sane mind will reject. But suppose one's subconscious has been building solid bridges for years?

That was a rare, and unrepeated, venture into print. After an equally eye-opening lecture on Love's Labour's Lost a few years later, Clayton couldn't be persuaded even to let it go into the departmental journal. And now there are cupboards and drawers full of papers, a great but unrecognised scholarly endeavour. Buried in there is an unparalleled insight into Shakespeare's way of working - the Latin poems he knew, the other passages to which he was guided by the marginal annotations in his texts, the definitions and mis-definitions he found when he turned to Elyot's dictionary to look up a word.

Whether it can be rescued remains to be seen.

Frederick William Clayton, classicist; born Liverpool 13 December 1913; Professor of Classics, Exeter University (formerly University College of the South-West) 1948-75 (Emeritus); married 1948 Friederike Buttner- Wobst (two sons, two daughters); died Exeter 8 December 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all