Lord Quinton: Oxford philosopher, public servant and acclaimed broadcaster who was staunch in his support for Mrs Thatcher

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:58

Tony Quinton lit up the room as soon as he entered it. The very opposite of a gloomy philosopher, he radiated wit, energy, amiability and affection; he generated mirth and warmth, and made you feel glad to be alive and in his presence. Urbane, handsome and large, Tony cut quite a figure in Oxford, and in cosmopolitan circles in London and New York. In his latter years he and his ebullient, chic American wife, Marcelle, though they had moved to the elegantly convenient Albany, maintained a sort of floating salon in Oxford by giving regular lunch parties at New College. He became almost a celebrity, as the question-master of the long running Radio 4 Round Britain Quiz, at a time when philosophers such as AJ Ayer and Bertrand Russell were public figures. He was part of a fabled Oxford generation that included Freddy Ayer, John Bayley, Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Carr, David Cecil, John Cooper and Ian Little among his colleagues at New College and All Souls.

Above all he was a considerable intellect, a stylish polymath who read everything that came his way, an unforgettable conversationalist, a fine writer and author, editor or translator of nine or 10 books, a good teacher and administrator, as President of Trinity College, Oxford, and Chairman of the Board of the British Library at a crucial time in its history.

Anthony Meredith Quinton, Baron Quinton of Holywell, in the City of Oxford and County of Oxfordshire, was born in 1925. His father was a surgeon captain in the Royal Navy; his mother was Canadian. Tony made his first of several trips to his mother's native land in 1934. But in September 1940, as he and his mother were being evacuated to Canada, their ship, City of Benares, became separated from the destroyer escorting her and was torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic. They were put into a lifeboat, but it tipped while being lowered, and took in water.

The boat drifted in the freezing ocean and the 15-year-old Tony helped ease overboard the bodies of those of 22 passengers who had died of exposure. When they were rescued 20 hours later by the British warship Hurricane there were eight survivors, including him and his mother. Seventy-seven British children and 217 adults perished in the disaster.

Tony claimed that, apart from nightmares for a short time, he suffered no lasting psychological damage: "I was a plump, healthy youth and I wasn't hideously cold ... I suppose I felt some sort of natural confidence that things would turn out all right." He gave some of the credit for his buoyancy to the fact that his mother had survived with him, so that catastrophe was not compounded by personal loss. Nevertheless, those who sometimes thought they could feel an undercurrent of melancholy in Quinton joviality might link it to this episode.

Educated at Stowe, he went up on a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford in 1943 and read modern history for two terms before joining the RAF as a flying officer and navigator. He returned in 1946, immediately making his mark as part of the flourishing philosophy scene dominated by JL Austin and Gilbert Ryle. In 1949 he took what is remembered as a brilliant first in PPE, and was elected to a Fellowship at All Souls, where he remained until he became a Fellow of New College from 1955-1978, teaching philosophy and enjoying the genial company of its Senior Common Room.

In a review of Tom Stoppard's philosophical play Jumpers, Quinton reminisced about that time: "Philosophy was much more in the public eye than it is today. The austerity and consequent boredom of the war and the years that directly followed it awoke an appetite for intellectual self-improvement from which philosophy, along with a lot of other things, benefited ... That has all rather petered out. The brightest young philosophers nowadays emigrate to the United States."

Quinton was a popular tutor, a stranger to pomposity, able to make down-to-earth sense of the most abstruse arguments, always in a sunny mood. One of his pupils was Nigel Lawson, whose languid good looks did not tally with his "very steely, firm and concentrated character." In his tutorials, "instead of the usual business of submitting the pupil to Socratic questioning, it was the other way round."

Despite his books, such as his second, The Nature of Things (he boasted that it had not a single footnote) and the useful Utilitarian Ethics (both 1973), and the span of his interests indicated by the volume he titled From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein (1998), his philosophy colleagues were not uniformly convinced that he was of the first rank. But as his great friend, the economist Ian Little, said to me, "Tony was probably too occupied reading everything possible to concentrate exclusively on philosophy."

Tony was disappointed not to be elected Warden of New College. Some of his friends regarded his appointment as President of Trinity as a consolation prize, though he never gave so much as a hint of that. He and Marcelle used the hall to give massive and imaginative lunch parties, with their friends seated on the undergraduate benches. I remember one when Marcelle had managed to get a huge quantity of andouillette from France, and the bewilderment of some of the guests encountering the pungent chitterling sausages for the first time.

Quinton's charm served the college well, as he showed in his abilities as a fund-raiser. He presided over Trinity College during the Thatcher years; his admiration for her policies did not surprise many of his friends, and he was a member of the Conservative Philosophy Group, which she attended several times. In 1982 she made him a life peer.

Tony met Marcelle Wegier, an elegant and accomplished American who became a talented portrait sculptor, at Keith Joseph's wedding in 1951. Lady Quinton speaks with a New York accent so pure that no one would guess she was a German-Jewish refugee in 1940. (In 2008 the Quintons published Before we Met, a joint memoir in which each describes their life before this event.) Their marriage was close and solid, and it (and 25 summer holidays at their house in the Hamptons) gave Tony a large set of American connections. He was a visiting professor at Swarthmore (1960), Stanford (1964), the New School for Social Research, New York (1976) and Brown (1994), and was Chairman of the Kennedy Memorial Trust (1990-95).

Quinton was undonnish in that he was well known as a literary reviewer of everything from philosophical tracts to thrillers. Owing to his habit of reading anything and everything, the editors of papers such as The Times, The Listener, and The Financial Times could rely on him to be abreast of any subject. But it was Round Britain Quiz that made him known to a mass audience. He was so quick, so learned and so effortlessly analytical that the producer who auditioned him realised that Tony would be an impossible competitor as he would always win. He was invited to become compère and question-setter of the tortuous panel game. He thrilled audiences with his courteous wit; he was always funny, no matter how fiendish the puzzle he set.

Quinton was of the generation for whom public service was the natural progression from academic life. He had been president of the Aristotelian Society in 1976-77, a delegate of the Oxford University Press from 1970-76, was vice-president of the British Academy from 1985-86, governor of Stowe for 21 years, a fellow of Winchester from 1970-75, and a judge of the Hawthornden Prize.

His most important public job, however, was as chairman of the board of the British Library at the time of its mostly amicable divorce from the British Museum, and its move from Bloomsbury to St Pancras. He took up the post in 1985 for five years; in 1987 he resigned from the presidency of Trinity and worked long hours on the British Library. He had to deal with the criticisms of those who wanted to retain the library tradition of the Round Reading Room, and were opposed to the new site; and he had also to cope with those, like Prince Charles, who did not immediately see the merits of Colin St John Wilson's plans for the largest building constructed in Britain in the 20th century. Quinton was responsible for overseeing the complicated move and was proud that it was accomplished with so little disruption to its services. As he himself was one of the most voracious readers of all time, there was an exquisite appropriateness about this final employment.

Tony's generosity of spirit showed itself in his conversation. He could keep up a flow of diverting, engaging, almost never malicious anecdotes for hours – or he could lucidly sum up a problem of logic, or a metaphysical theory or epistemological argument, in minutes. At his table or yours he would genially and unselfishly amuse everyone present. But he was too considerate to monopolise the conversation, and he'd ask your opinion about a subject, though you knew his own views on the matter would be more interesting. If he had a flaw, it was that he was too versatile, too good at too many things to be the best at any one thing. Perhaps he belonged in another century. Dr Johnson would have loved him.

Paul Levy

Anthony Meredith Quinton, philosopher, broadcaster, public servant: born London 25 March 1925; President, Trinity College, Oxford 1978-87; Chairman, Board of the British Library 1985-90; 1982 cr. Lord Quinton of Holywell; married 1952 Marcelle Wegier (one son, one daughter); died London 19 June 2010.

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