Obituary: Christopher Morris
Monday 01 March 1993
CHRISTOPHER MORRIS was a quintessential college don of the inter-war years. His life was devoted to his pupils, to King's and to Cambridge. He came up in 1924, was elected a Fellow by dissertation and taught history until he retired in 1971; and he was still working in his rooms until a few days before he died.
He used to say that he learnt the secret of supervision from Nathaniel Wedd (who brought EM Forster out of his shell). You must first find something to praise in a pupil's essay, after which you can say practically anything. And you must teach the man not the subject. Lecturers cover the subject and recommend the books; the supervisor spots the strengths and weaknesses in his pupil and recommends the books to open his mind such as The Martyrdom of Man or The Brothers Karamazov. Morris spent hours on his pupils. A scholarship candidate would receive before he came up a letter in his own hand eight pages long suggesting what to read.
He was not a charismatic teacher whose pupils imitated him. Always friendly, he was cool - he looked through you, summing you up. The serious and stodgy he tried to shock, the too-clever-by-half he jolted by insisting they produce evidence and use sources critically to justify their epigrams. The genial lazy athlete found himself facing a man wearing an Achilles or Alverstone tie (Morris ran in the four-mile relay for Cambridge) and if invited to his home - for he and Helen were untiringly hospitable - would find the whole wall of a room covered with volumes on cricket.
He was a connoisseur of undergraduate intellect. He enjoyed setting and marking exam papers and identifying the precise cast of a candidate's mind. He enjoyed defending to his fellow examiners the nuance of alpha beta minus or a beta gamma query query alpha (the sign of a charlatan).
Dons such as he are indispensable colleagues. He was asked time and again to be chairman of the Tripos examiners. For years he did duty as Seeley Librarian for the History Faculty. He was even in 1938 a (merciful) Junior Proctor. When Sir John Clapham retired Morris became only the third president of the oldest of all college history societies, founded by Oscar Browning in 1876, and for 30 years opened each academic year with a paper. History societies of other colleges had only to ask him for a paper and he would oblige. Their range was astonishing: from the Plague of 1665 and matters that came from editing the diaries of Celia Fiennes to the social structure of cricket - 'Gentlemen and Players', in which the snobbery of the gentlemen was revealed to be matched by their gamesmanship. He called himself an amateur historian. A professional was one whose researches in the archives illuminated a particular period or subject. Yet he was in fact prodigiously learned in all sorts of byways, and bought and read thousands of books.
Morris began by lecturing on Tudor and Stuart constitutional history and later gave the standard course on the history of political thought from Plato to Rousseau. Out of this came books on the Tudors, on Tyndale and Hooker, and the first of a projected three-volume history on Western political thought. But the tide had turned and his liberal interpretation did not take into account the challenge his contemporary Michael Oakeshott was making nor how his younger colleague Quentin Skinner was changing the subject.
Morris stepped from the pages of Mill's Essay on Liberty. Nothing pleased him more than to vote in a minority of one. He would side with a minority even if some of them held views the antithesis of his own. On the Abdication, on military service and architecture he expressed original views. Enjoying paradox, he was something of a paradox himself. When young he was a pronounced agnostic, but there was no more regular attender of chapel services and he was a natural member of the church patronage committee.
He was a champion of women's colleges and on retirement directed studies for Girton for three years; but he shook his head over feminism. Nor did he hide his disapproval of the trendy and of political correctness. When some Fellows argued that the college had no right to finance private education by maintaining the Choir School, he reminded them that the choristers were part of King Henry's foundation and had a better right to support than they. He was a great college man.
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