T. J. Binyon
Crime novelist, Russian scholar and prizewinning biographer of Pushkin
Wednesday 13 October 2004
Last year, T. J. Binyon crowned his academic career by winning the £30,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for his biography
Pushkin (2002), which must have seemed a very worldly thing for an Oxford don to do.
Timothy John Binyon, Russian scholar, biographer and crime novelist: born Leeds 18 February 1936; Assistant Lecturer in Russian, Leeds University 1962-64, Lecturer 1964; Fellow, Wadham College, Oxford 1968-2004 (Emeritus); married 1974 Felicity Butterwick (née Roberts; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1992), 2000 Helen Ellis; died Witney, Oxfordshire 7 October 2004.
Last year, T. J. Binyon crowned his academic career by winning the £30,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for his biography Pushkin (2002), which must have seemed a very worldly thing for an Oxford don to do.
In fact, although he was a mainstay of Wadham College, and took his college and university duties seriously, Tim Binyon always had one foot planted firmly in the more fertile soil of London literary life. As well as the Pushkin - the first full life of Russia's national poet to be published in any language since 1937 - Binyon also wrote Murder Will Out (1989), a study of detective fiction, and, in the best Oxford tradition, two thrillers of his own, Swan Song (1982) and Greek Gifts (1988).
After a rich and rewarding career, Binyon was having a late flowering in his life. He had retired from his college to a just-finished house and glorious garden in Witney, having in 2000 married Helen Ellis, head of publicity at HarperCollins. They were entertaining their first guests there, and making plans for an ambitious American book tour for the publication of the paperback edition of Pushkin (which had been as widely lauded in the United States as in Britain), with independent invitations to speak at several Ivy League universities and (the ultimate accolade) New York's 92nd Street Y, when, without warning, he died from heart failure. He had already begun the research for his next book, on Lermontov.
Timothy John Binyon was born to the academic purple in 1936 in Leeds, where his father, Denis, a nephew of the poet Laurence Binyon, lectured in Classics at the university. Tim (he was always called that, frowned at "Timothy" and glared if anyone dared to use any other diminutive) and his younger sister, Jane, went to the village primary school at Hebden, in the West Riding, and even as an adult his speech always had more than a touch of Yorkshire in it.
During the Second World War his father was in London at the Board of Trade, firewatching in the evening, while his redoubtable mother, Nancy, herself a university graduate, did a succession of jobs that took Tim and Jane around Britain, to Suffolk, to Nottingham, and even to Cornwall, where Nancy taught at a progressive school. (His other sister, Mary, 12 years younger than Tim, had not yet been born.) Tim attended a very large number of schools (my wife thinks he once said he'd been to 15) but, following the war, when his father returned to Leeds and settled in Skipton, he was sent to Ermysted's Grammar School, where he shone - on the playing fields as well, as he was solid and well-built.
At 18, having secured a place at Oxford to read History, he did his obligatory National Service. At first he was a radar operator in a heavy anti-aircraft battery at an army camp near Knutsford, Cheshire. He remembered a hot afternoon when the loudspeakers in the barracks "played nothing but Radio Luxembourg, and all through the summer months Doris Day had been yearning for the Black Hills of Dakota", when the sergeant-major abruptly summoned him and told him that he "had been posted to the Joint Services School of Linguists in Bodmin to learn Russian".
The tone of the sergeant-major's voice as he imparted the news of Tim Binyon's transfer conveyed
the view, first, that he didn't believe the unit existed, and second, that if it did, it was not part of the proper army . . . where one blancoed one's kit every day, stiffened one's folded blankets with pieces of cardboard, ironed box pleats into one's battledress and bulled one's boots to unbelievable shininess with a heated teaspoon and the handle of one's toothbrush.
On the first count he was wrong, for the unit not only existed, but Binyon was joining the phenomenal group of young men whose strange story was told last year in Geoffrey Elliott and Harold Shukman's book Secret Classrooms, and which included Dennis Potter, Michael Frayn and Binyon's lifelong friend Alan Bennett. But he was right on the second:
Normal army life was hardly possible in a camp where Russian émigrés strolled languidly into the classrooms, their overcoats slung elegantly over their shoulders, smoking cigarettes cut in half - in imitation of a Russian papirosa - in long, amber holders; or combed their luxuriant, cavalry officers' moustaches while initiating us into the mysteries of the Russian verbal system; or, in a moment of nostalgia, confided to us that they had been so much in love in October 1917 that they hadn't noticed the Revolution.
It was a strange pedagogical experiment, but it worked. In 18 months spent first in Bodmin, then in London and last of all in Crail, in Fife, the young men were crammed with Russian. As translators and interpreters for the future Cold War military, they were made to master "a recondite military vocabulary and a detailed knowledge of the Soviet armed forces". It was Binyon's good luck that these very non-Soviet teachers were eager to impart to their students a feeling for Russian literature and culture.
"All this was a revelation to me," he wrote in 2003:
To begin with, there was something satisfying about the way the parts of the Russian language fitted together, while even the most ordinary of words sounded so mysteriously attractive. And the literature was amazingly rich. Like other adolescents, I found the febrile, psychologically intense world of Dostoevsky hypnotically irresistible . . . Tolstoy's all-embracing universe, Turgenev's quiet pessimism and the manifold variety of Pushkin's genius were only fully appreciated later.
After another year of National Service, he took up his place at Exeter College, but changed his course and read German and Russian, tutored by Paul Foote, and took a First in Modern Languages. He then spent a year at Moscow University - astonishingly, his only visit to Russia. Colleagues have remarked to me on the excellence of his spoken Russian, despite his never having returned to refresh it.
His first job was teaching Russian literature at Leeds University, before returning to Oxford as a "non-don" lecturer, with a university post but no college attachment - until Maurice Bowra's Wadham "bid" for him to become a Fellow in 1968. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on an early- 20th-century poet, Valery Bryusov, and published a collection of Soviet verse ( A Soviet Verse Reader, 1964).
Bowra was his chief mentor when Binyon began teaching at Wadham, and their high-table and common-room banter was one of the pleasures of dining with him in the years when Binyon lived in college, although he had a succession of beautiful and talented girlfriends. His glamorous romances were part of Oxford lore, and it was part of the lovableness of his character that he remained on good terms with most of them long after the affairs were over.
For a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, he served as Dean of Wadham, both liked and respected by the undergraduates for his fairness and evident concern for their well-being. He was a good college man, and continued as a popular and genial Senior Research Fellow under the Wardenships of Stuart Hampshire, Klaus Moser and John Flemming, all of whom relied on him for good company and good sense.
In 1974 Binyon suddenly ceased to be a bachelor don upon marrying Felicity Butterwick, a divorcee who lived in Oxford with four ebullient and outgoing teenaged daughters. Tim Binyon adored his ready-made new family, and the couple added a daughter of their own, Polly, to the tribe inhabiting the comfortable north Oxford house. Here Tim showed another side of his character, for he was a generous and jovial host, and seemed to have been waiting for years for the chance to entertain his friends - and to put food on the table that he had often cooked himself. He had sometimes planned the menus in college - now he exulted in the opportunity to execute them as well.
He became a careful and accomplished cook, as befitted a bon vivant. His taste in wine was impeccable, and his home-baked bread superb. When his mother moved to Oxford, we often played bridge at her house - but Nancy soon got serious about the game and was out of my league, though Tim continued to play after her death and spent most Monday nights playing duplicate at his bridge club.
After his first marriage ended, amicably, Tim Binyon was back in college again for a time, while he worked on Pushkin. But he had got the taste for civilised domesticity, and his friends rejoiced when, after he married Helen Ellis in 2000, they began to look for a house near Oxford where she could garden and he could add to his encyclopaedic collection and knowledge of movies and indulge his addiction to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He was bound eventually to have met Helen, for he had, in the Eighties, taken a part-time publishing job with Naim Attalah as crime editor at Quartet Books. He also reviewed crime fiction for a succession of literary editors on the London Evening Standard and some of the national papers, as well as other fiction that particularly interested him, such as the novels of Patrick O'Brian. But he always had a London life, whether with his gang of fellow northerners, who included Alan Bennett and Russell Harty, or with a cosmopolitan group of friends who mostly worked in television and literary journalism.
Then, with the publication of Pushkin and the 2003 prize, Binyon became a literary celebrity himself. The reviews were stunning; a film was even made about the book and televised (on BBC4) last March. The Washington Times reviewer, Peter Rollberg, congratulated him on delaying publication of his book beyond the Pushkin bicentenary celebrations in 1999 "with Pushkin chocolate and Pushkin vodka filling the shelves of Moscow supermarkets". Otherwise, he said in this strangely back-handed compliment,
his truly extraordinary work could have been misunderstood - and overlooked - as a mere jubilee contribution. Far from the latter, it is a masterpiece in its own right.
George Walden compared the biography to W. Jackson Bate's empathetic 1977 life of Samuel Johnson, saying,
Pushkin is one of the great biographies of recent times. "Scholarly" and "engrossing" are often antonyms, yet such is Binyon's skill in presenting his phenomenal research, and so patiently does he build up the reader's interest in the man and his era, that he ends by captivating us.
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