Obituary: Roly Wason
Saturday 24 January 1998
Roly Wason was one of the great Cambridge intellects of the era preceding the likes of Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby and, as with them, his political thinking changed radically from the cosy conversatism into which he was born towards Marxism; but, not as with them, he remained loyal to his country.
Wason was born in Cossington, Somerset, in 1907. But, although he also spent the last year of his life there, he felt as much at home in Scotland; his grand- and great-grandfathers were Eugene Wason and Peter Rigby Wason, Scottish Liberal MPs (the latter was a promoter of the 1832 Reform Bill and co-founder of the Reform Club). And when his mother, the daughter of the founder of the Invalid Children's Aid Association (now I-Can), died nursing the wounded in France in the First World War, and his rear- admiral father was at sea, he was brought up in Aberdeenshire. It was this love of Scotland, and his deep understanding of the class system, that led to the publication in 1976 of his radical interpretation of Scottish history Rebel Scotland.
Wason's academic brilliance was slow to gain recognition, however. He often joked that his tutor at Rugby School was delighted whenever his marks were only just below those of the worst performer in his form, but he went on to become head boy and then a leading student at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, whence he graduated with first class honours with distinction in Latin, Greek and Ancient History.
It was his love of Classics and Scotland that led to his meeting in Edinburgh with Margaret ("Margherita") Lamb. They eloped to Gretna Green, where they were married on 7 January 1935. To appease disconcerted parents they were married again at a registry office and finally in church. This hat- trick of weddings seemed to work - they were parted only by Margherita's death 57 years later.
During Wason's time as Professor of Archaeology at the University of Toronto, and Keeper of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Royal Ontario Museum, a position he had taken up at the tender age of 24, and Margherita's research for her PhD thesis, "Class Struggles in Ancient Greece", the couple began travels and adventures that they continued in three phases of their lives. In the late 1920s and 1930s, they explored the whole of Europe, particularly the Soviet bloc, Greece and the Balkans. Travelling always by car (Frazer Nash, Lagonda, Bugatti, even on one occasion a 1902 de Dion Bouton), staying always in their rudimentary tent, they came to be known and respected as much by the brigands of Albania as by the intelligentsia of Greece.
Then, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, they retraced their steps with their three young sons, taking camping equipment, clothes and provisions for up to six weeks at a time, on a motorcycle and sidecar. After their retirement in the Seventies, they travelled overland to Nepal and Bangladesh, and the central Asian states of the then Soviet Union.
Wason remained true to his beliefs throughout his life. After only a year at Toronto, and a brief tenure as Lecturer in Classical Archaeology at Edinburgh University, he abandoned teaching students interested more in gaining a degree than in archaeology. When, in 1938, he became Organiser for the County of Argyll Labour Party, he rejected offers of parliamentary posts, seeing them as corruptly motivated. Rather, he became an expert lens grinder at Barr and Stroud in Glasgow where, as a shop steward, he set up the most efficient socialist network seen on Clydeside.
After an unsuccessful attempt at fruit farming in Somerset, he took up a post in 1953 as works manager at the engineering firm, Richards & Timmins, and moved his young family to Hartlepool. When, within months, the firm became yet another victim of the 1950s recession, he and Margherita became bus conductors for West Hartlepool Corporation Transport - the North-East's most over- qualified "clippies". Roly went on to drive a bus for five years from 1953, and delighted his passengers, particularly the children, with stories, poems and jokes colourfully recounted in his book Busman's View (1958).
Roly and Margherita Watson returned to teaching for the last 15 years of their working lives, first at the Frederick Natrass School in Norton- on-Tees, then at Stevenage College, before retiring to Somerset. Here Roly concluded his theory of the lessons to be learned from patterns that have occurred on at least half a dozen occasions through the history of civilisation, as told in his parables, The Sons of War, which have not yet been published. He was beginning to communicate this message to his correspondents on the Internet on his first computer, which he acquired on his 90th birthday.
- Graham Wason
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