Obituary: Bernard Mellor

Asa Briggs
Saturday 14 March 1998 00:02 GMT

BERNARD MELLOR once described the ideal Registrar at a university as "a small bald fellow who walks with a stick". He left out the twinkling eyes and the sharp but friendly tongue.

"Bunny" Mellor's tenure as Registrar at Hong Kong broke records. Well- informed, co- operative and committed, he was at the centre of the university as it was transformed from a small war-abandoned outpost into a thriving centre of learning and life. Everyone in Hong Kong could identify him. Whenever he went back there after his retirement he was in great demand. He knew that he belonged.

Mellor would never have wished to be remembered, however, only as a Registrar, least of all as an administrator or a manager. Labels do not fit him. He wrote the history of the university (A History of the University of Hong Kong, 1978), which bestowed a doctorate on him in 1974, the only kind of doctorate that mattered to him, a doctorate of letters.

When he had been at Oxford, his other university, he was editor of Cherwell and employed Edward Heath as a political correspondent. He was taught at Merton by the poet Edmund Blunden, who influenced his ways of thinking and feeling. His closest undergraduate friend was the Chinese writer Yang Xian-i, who joined him as a Hong Kong Doctor of Letters in 1993.

It was Yang Xian-i who drew him towards China, a realm of the imagination for him, which always had a place in Mellor's heart. I found it a delight to travel with him there several times over the last 20 years. There was always poetry in the air.

His first prose work bore the memorable title Ration Cooking for Small Detachments. It was written while he was serving as a bombadier in an anti-aircraft unit defending London. In 1942 he was accepted for a commission in the Indian Army and it was from this base (through signals, cryptography and intelligence) that he was posted to Kunming, very quickly realising his undergraduate dream.

Romance and fact intertwined at every stage. For a time he worked as a member of a deception unit headed by Peter Fleming, the China travel writer and brother of Ian. One of their publications was a spurious version of the Illustrated London News, designed for Burma. Mellor's last piece of writing, yet unpublished, covers this adventurous period, a lifetime in itself, and his subsequent arrival in an even more adventurous China.

It was while in Kunming that Mellor met one of his future Vice-Chancellors, Hong Kong's fifth, (Colonel) Lindsay Ride, at that time Professor of Physiology. Ride returned to a devastated Hong Kong and a looted university before Mellor: he had to report back in India before flying to Hong Kong for the first time via Rangoon in October 1945. This was an unforgettable time, like some times since, for all who lived through it in Hong Kong. Yet before settling in Hong Kong - if "settle" was ever the right word to use in relation to post-war Hong Kong - Mellor returned briefly to Oxford. For different reasons this was to be a momentous visit. While in Switzerland he met and married a Swiss girl, Mauricette Jeanneret-Grosjean, in Berne in September 1946. They had five children.

Fortunately for Bunny Mellor's friends there was always a special place for friendship, and in so-called retirement there were always new things that he found to do. No one could have put more energy into the task of creating an independent university in Macao, an adventure story in itself, the first part of which he has written. No one could have dreamed more vividly not only of new institutions but of new poems or new films.

There was one other aspect of his experience which must be identified in order to catch his spirit. Before going up to Oxford as an undergraduate he had thought of becoming a concert pianist. It was not to be, but in retirement in Hong Kong before his last return to Oxford (via Abingdon) he served for a time as consultant and even general manager to the Hong Kong Philharmonic Society, which was seeking to create a professional orchestra.

Throughout his life Bunny Mellor sought for harmony, and all who shared in it with him will be sad to lose him, performing and conducting. Silence was never golden.

Bernard Mellor, university administrator: born Blackpool, Lancashire 8 November 1917; Registrar, University of Hong Kong 1948-74; Planning Director and Consultant, University of East Asia, Macao 1979-88; married 1946 Mauricette Jeanneret-Grosjean (five sons); died Oxford 28 January 1998.

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