OBITUARY:John Pinsent

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The Independent Online
The status of Classics in British education has altered much in recent years, the content and style of classical teaching even more. John Pinsent taught Greek at Liverpool University between 1950 and 1990, and will be remembered best for the learned journal which he founded towards the end of 1975 and continued to edit until shortly before his death, Liverpool Classical Monthly ("LCM" or "Pinsent's Paper").

At the beginning of his career at Liverpool Pinsent adapted himself with great dexterity to pupils of very different background from his contemporaries' and his own, at St Edmund's School, Canterbury, and Oriel College, Oxford. Towards the end of his career he learnt better than many how to handle the demands of a university world increasingly antagonistic to the values his upbringing had inculcated. The books and artefacts he studied continued to excite him, and he communicated his excitement to all who sat before him.

When he came to found Liverpool Classical Monthly in 1975, Pinsent had long deplored the smallness of the classical department of the average university or university college, the feeling of isolation it created in its members, and the tendency of many to lose interest in the subject they were paid to teach. Journals established in the late 19th century, with their costly formats, self-important editorial boards, faceless referees and lengthy backlogs, seemed to him to have rendered British scholarship constipated.

Accordingly, for LCM, he looked for people willing to write short articles unballasted by footnotes and long reviews angled more to the theme of the book than to the author's bibliographical shortcomings. He encouraged those he found to address their fellow scholars rather than promotion and appointment committees. Just as importantly, he exercised his manifold powers of flattery and persuasion to drum up subscriptions for the new journal.

In the early days he typed every number of LCM himself on stencils and reproduced them by means of an office duplicator. Later he wrestled with the new print technologies. The typing errors of LCM delighted the connoisseurs of such things.

No aspect of the study of the classical world was barred. The philology of sex and certain modes of literary criticism imported from across the Channel offended his sense of decorum but he gave them space. He permitted the incompetent to display their incompetence. In time, he even came to indulge the more incorrigible lovers of footnotes.

Many purchased or borrowed LCM - it tended to be stolen from libraries more often than any other classical periodical - if only to read the editorial. Here Pinsent talked of everything from his doings on holiday to his views on the latest proposal to reform classical teaching. Many British classicists continued to feel embarrassed by one aspect or another of the enterprise. Foreigners on the other hand found it amusingly British and entirely admirable.

Pinsent's Oxford studies were interrupted by service in the Royal Air Force. He flew Catilinas out of Loch Erne and a certain military bearing remained with him thereafter. When he returned to Oxford he had the good fortune to be taught by two very great ancient historians of diverse, even opposed, outlooks. Ronald Syme helped to prepare him for the "Greats" examination, and Hugh Last supervised a doctoral dissertation on the subject communities of central and southern Italy down to the Social War.

Pinsent had the ambition of commenting on the second half of Livy's first decade, but appointment to a position in Greek at Liverpool in 1950 instead of to the one in Latin for which he applied led him to turn his attention to Homer and Mycenaean archaeology. He saw out two professors of Greek and five of Latin, saluting and saying "Sir!" but always keeping his inner spirit free. He said what he thought and said it well, sometimes in verse.

The congeries of departments called for most of the time when the "School of Classics" could not confine him. A profound knowledge of the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy was placed at the service of the whole university. He rejoiced in the title of "Chairman of the Laid Down Wine Committee". His wit and charm lightened many an official occasion. He knew the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the classics of English literature even better than he knew the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those who received honorary degrees from Liverpool University during his years of public oratorship treasured the memory of the graceful eloquence with which he praised them.

His friends were without number.

H. D. Jocelyn

John Pinsent, classical scholar: born 2 November 1922; Assistant Lecturer in Greek, Liverpool University 1950-53, Lecturer 1953-69, Senior Lecturer 1969-78, Reader 1978-80, Public Orator 1983-87; founder and Editor, Liverpool Classical Monthly 1976-95; married 1946 Barbara Crumley, 1955 Margaret Bowen (two sons, one daughter), 1994 Helena Hurt; died Liverpool 3 February 1995.