Obituary; Professor A. F. L. Beeston
Saturday 07 October 1995
Freddie Beeston was undoubtedly one of the more colourful figures on the Oxford landscape, marked out by his lengthy Lisztian hair, ample girth, booming laugh and smoker's cough. Never a mere eccentric, he was a man of genuine individuality and character, and a delightful companion of vast reading and wide culture. In addition to his openness and conviviality, there was a private and introspective side, which was by its nature less known, and it was there that one would find his deep Christian faith.
His professional linguistic accomplishments were formidable, and his supplementary knowledge stretched from Welsh via Hungarian to Chinese. An autobiographical memoir, circulated privately, recounts his childhood fascination with foreign languages ("the more exotic the better") and his precocious attempts at deciphering Sabaean inscriptions in the British Museum.
From Westminster School he won a Scholarship to Christ Church, where he read Classical Moderations and then, after being subjected to the somewhat unusual teaching methods of Professor D.S. Margoliouth, which he delighted to describe, he took a First Class Honours degree in Arabic and Persian. His DPhil in the area of his beloved South Arabian Epigraphy followed, and then he began his long-planned career as a librarian in the Bodleian Library. This was interrupted by his war service from November 1940 to April 1946, as Lieutenant, and then Captain, in the Intelligence Corps. At the Bodleian he rose to be Sub-Librarian and Keeper of Oriental Books and Manuscripts, and then came his election as Laudian Professor, which was a surprise to some at the time but which was triumphantly vindicated.
His scholarly productions are noteworthy for their dense, yet precise, thought, and elegant expression. St John Philby once judged that Beeston was too self-critical and published too little. However, after a life of careful scholarship which continued in his retirement, he leaves a varied output, including his contribution to the Catalogue of the Persian, Turkish, Hindustani and Pushtu Manuscripts in the Bodleian, his A Descriptive Grammar of Epigraphic South Arabian (1962), which was always the centre of his interests, his contributions to the study of Arabic language, notably The Arabic Language Today (1970) and Written Arabic: an approach to the basic structures (1968), and editions and translations of classical Arabic authors, of which The Singing Girls of al-Jahiz is perhaps the best known and the most widely used. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1965.
His tenure of the Laudian Professorship coincided with the creation of new posts and with the steady increase in the number of students, the building of the Oriental Institute, where for the first time all parts of the faculty were brought under one roof, and the expansion of the undergraduate syllabus into modern Arabic literature. Through all this Beeston presided as an affable and approachable princeps inter pares, always helpful and full of encouragement for younger colleagues. For undergraduates and graduates also he was an infinitely patient and caring mentor in tutorials and supervisions. His frequent hospitality was an expression of his love of good company and of good food and drink.
Through his Professorial Fellowship he gained a congenial home at St John's College, where he continued to the end to be "a good college man" of a type possibly less commonly found these days. For many years he served as Dean of Degrees and delivered the required Latin formulae in his deep, resonant voice. The boisterous Schools dinners he hosted were memorable indeed. On one occasion, after further imbibings at the Perch, a walk back along the Isis ended in an impromptu swim. Freddie Beeston was, too, one of the faithful denizens, of the now defunct Parson's Pleasure, the male swimming place on the River Cherwell. To mark its demise Beeston was in the photograph (strategically camouflaged) that appeared in the press.
In very many cases the teacher-pupil relationship developed into mutual friendship. Beeston remained in contact with numerous former students, not infrequently extending his friendship and interest to their children. His 80th birthday, in 1991, was celebrated with two festschrift volumes, one aptly entitled Arabicus Felix Luminosus Britannicus (A.F.L.B.).
Within the last year he had faced an illness with candour and fortitude, and was making a good recovery. We were perhaps deluded into imagining that his "luminous" presence would always be with us.
Donald S. Richards
Alfred Felix Landon Beeston, Orientalist: born Barnes, London 23 February 1911; Keeper of Oriental Books, Bodleian Library, Oxford 1946-55; Laudian Professor of Arabic, Oxford University 1955-78; Fellow, St John's College, Oxford 1955-78 (Emeritus); FBA 1965; books include Baidawi's Commentary on Surah 12 1963, Written Arabic 1968, The Arabic Language Today 1970, Selections form the Poetry of Bassar 1977, Samples of Arabic Prose 1977, The "Epistle of Singing Girls" of Jahiz 1980, Sabaic Grammar 1984; died Oxford 29 September 1995.
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