Obituary: Sir Desmond Lee
Tuesday 21 December 1993
DESMOND LEE never wished to be a schoolmaster. Indeed, I doubt if the idea had ever crossed his mind. But Clifton College had got into the habit of prizing dons out of Oxford or Cambridge when they were in need of a Head, and in 1947 its Council prized out Lee. He was then Senior Tutor of Corpus Christi, Cambridge.
Lee's had been an administrative and not a fighting war. He had served in industry in the North-east and had assisted Will Spens, Corpus's formidable Master, in the civilian defence staff of East Anglia. Before the Second World War he had been in the midst of the flourishing intellectual life of Cambridge, with Wittgenstein and William Empson among his friends and the pre-Socratic philosophers his speciality. A Clifton College led by Lee would be no ordinary provincial public school of the second rank. A good and learned administrator he would be. But, like it or not, he would have to be a schoolmaster as well.
He reigned at Clifton for seven years (1948-54). Those who served under him found him either intellectually stimulating or maddeningly remote. He was very tall. His body was oddly but imposingly shaped, its silhouette unmistakable. His voice was mellow but decisive, full of odd emphases which were sometimes soporific but always vital to the sense. And it was not a voice he wasted.
He was intellectually tough. He was intolerant of those teachers, of which perhaps there were more then than now, who inspired their pupils but to him were mentally soggy, whose ideas were fascinating but half-baked. He was suspicious of all who taught English literature, but preferred them if their degree was in something 'tougher'. Jane Austen, he used to say, could never be understood by and should never be taught to the unmarried. He believed that Drama was not a discipline and should be used at schools for relaxation and its effects on adolescents carefully watched - this was an unsurprising view from someone then busy translating Plato's Republic (1955). Music he endured. Musicians he frequently didn't. Some modern art, however, he knew well, loved, and judged sensitively. He owned a magnificent Ivon Hitchens landscape which dominated his drawing room, which was sombre but somehow welcoming.
It was often said that Lee had no small talk. Once he was at ease, he had plenty. He rejoiced all his life in tales of the absurdities of schoolmasters and - though less often - of dons. When he was relaxed and felt that he was among friends, he was a joy to be with. When he was uncertain or shy he lapsed into silence and froze others. He was not a man to make a party of strangers go.
Those of us he chose to serve under him at Clifton found him a great teacher. Intellectual values, we believed, were safe with him. His prejudices did not obtrude. Having given, with a smile, his views on Austen he was happy to let people go on teaching her. He presided benignly over the birth of Clifton's great drama tradition. He never came to blows with that wild genius, Douglas Fox, and sang for him in chapel with exemplary volume - except the carol 'In the bleak midwinter', whose words he found appalling.
He liked things in the school to flourish, and they did. When rumours flitted about that Winchester College was after him, some traditionalists may have been pleased, but the younger staff were distressed, frightened that instead of him would come some strait-laced and conventional ex-housemaster whose heart was on the rugby field. We at Clifton asked him not to go. But he went, to be replaced by Nicholas Hammond, another Cambridge don of immense classical learning.
Winchester was said to be in an administrative muddle. That was what attracted Lee, not the renown of the place. He found it, in 1954, a school where great learning, needle minds, and some rather Philistine values were equally mixed. He found too a school where the Headmaster had to live in a high, cold, flint palace with little privacy, a vast and useless 'ballroom', and no garden. Luckily, there was, as always, his wife Elizabeth, eminently practical, full of talk small or big and an abundance of pastoral care. Together, they made the bleak palace a warm home.
The talked-of administrative muddle soon disappeared. The school continued to flourish, if somewhat differently. To its boys, Lee was a remote figure, but those who broke through his shyness often had their lives changed. He had beneath that reserve a cheerful worldly wisdom which was just what Wykehamists needed. To many of the staff as the years passed he became a lovable friend, if sometimes carried along in Elizabeth's bustling slipstream. To such, 'Des and Liz' were friends for life, or for a long time after the Lees left Winchester in 1968.
They left for a somewhat quieter life in Cambridge - but not for selfish reasons. Desmond was made Principal of Hughes Hall and became deeply involved in Grantchester Church. Wittgenstein and Empson had not destroyed his thoughtful, even if somewhat Deistical, Christian faith.
He did 21 years of somewhat reluctant headmastering. In that time he became a great force in the Headmasters' Conference. Robert Birley of Eton, Walter Hamilton of Westminster and Rugby, and Desmond Lee - these now seem the great Old Testament prophets of an organisation now too often smothered in paper and regulations. There was less paper then, but there were plenty of ideas: new Mathematics, Nuffield Science, new ways of teaching Classics, language laboratories, the civilising of public schools. Lee was in the midst of it all, not necessarily always approving but always quick to see what it was all about and always making sure that it did not founder on poor administration or enthusiasm that was thoughtless. And in his 'leisure' moments he went on translating Plato's Republic, leaving the more risky Symposium to Walter Hamilton. His translation still sells in its thousands over the world. It is Lee's civilising legacy to that world. And its sales must have helped him through those difficult last years of fading mental powers.
He deserved such help. He understood what education should be about. He made that understanding clear and inspired others to apply it.
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