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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.