Peter Derow, fellow and tutor in ancient history, Wadham College, Oxford, has directed me, James O'Fee, to a fuller version of the obituary of Professor George Forrest, which appeared in the (Glasgow) ‘Herald’ on Tue 21st, October, 1997 -
William George Grieve Forrest, Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford (1951-77), Wykeham Professor of Ancient History and Fellow of New College, Oxford (1977-92), born September 24, 1925, died October 14, 1997
George Forrest, the eminent Oxford historian, who has died at the age of 72, was born in Glasgow and insistently proud of his roots. He moved to London with his family at an early age but returned often. During the Blitz he was evacuated to Scotland, and after the war vacations would often find him bicycling from London to stay with relatives there. The kilt (his tartan was Douglas) was his favoured formal dress, and golf his favourite game.
He was educated at University College School, Hampstead. In 1943 he joined the RAF, and in the following years of war and then liberation he served in France and Belgium, more than once finding himself a participant in the events being covered by his father, the noted war correspondent. These years helped to turn what undoubtedly would have been a brilliant university career into an incalculably distinguished half-century in Oxford and international recognition.
George entered New College as a scholar in 1947, took a first in Classical Moderations in 1949, and another in Literae Humaniores in 1951. In his final term he won the Derby Scholarship, usually awarded for travel abroad, and within months he was elected to a Tutorial Fellowship in Ancient History at Wadham. Happily, there turned out to be no contradiction between his election and the projected travel.
The Warden of Wadham, Sir Maurice Bowra, whose unerring eye for uncommon promise had focused upon George and whose close friend George became, told him to begin his fellowship by going to Greece. Go he did, and return he did again and again throughout the rest of his life to the land whose history and whose people so deeply engaged his interest and his passion.
His 26 years at Wadham were a stunningly productive time. A series of central articles on archaic Greece began to appear in the mid-fifties as he wove together exceptional levels of linguistic skill, intellectual rigour, ingenuity, and a perceptiveness informed and enhanced by the most remarkable humanity: his history was always about people. He married Margaret in 1956, and as their daughters Cath and Ali were born, the MG [mikroskopiko aftokinito = tiny car-Ed] gave way to a more capacious Herald.
The early sixties saw a Visiting Fellowship at Trinity and University Colleges, Toronto (1961), together with two more famous articles;-
(a) one on Aristophanes and Athens during the Peloponnesian War, with comparisons, explicit and implicit, with London during and after the war; and
(b) another on early Sparta.
All came together in The Emergence of Greek Democracy (1966), one of the best and most influential books about Greek history ever written. The book was widely translated, but it was the Greek version (1994) that gave him the most pleasure (this honour followed the award of an Honorary Doctorate by Athens University in 1991). That version alone contains a preface, wherein his commitment to democracy, as well as his awareness of both its fragility and its resilience, whether in Greece of the fifth century BC or the 1960s and seventies, could not be clearer. The Greek edition is dedicated to his friend and ally, Melina Mercouri.
George was profoundly political, always a democrat and so, it followed naturally, always a socialist. His politics were active, never more so than when Greece needed rescuing from tyranny in the years after April 21, 1967. The regular visits ceased for seven years; the work of liberation (with Bowra and many others) was tireless.
He continued to write. A History of Sparta was published in 1968 (second edition, 1980), when he was Visiting Professor at Yale University. There were searching articles on Herodotus, and, over 40 years and more, on the inscriptions and history of Chios.
And he taught. As a tutor George was unrivalled. All the qualities that informed his best work (along with unfailing generosity and the resources of a prodigious memory) went into every tutorial, hundreds every year. He did not teach the subject so much as he taught the people, thereby enabling them to engage with the subject, to do history, and so to learn about it.
There was an extraordinary level of mutual respect and affection between George and his pupils. George offered a fierce loyalty to his former pupils (and other friends), which was matched only by their loyalty to him.
Tutorials were not dry occasions. There was the Martini bottle (for carrying the water needed for making squeezes of inscribed stones, whether in the field or in the basement of the Ashmolean); there was opera (Verdi and Puccini above all); there was the table, for much billiards was learned along with ancient history. And there were the stories, in tutorials as in all his dealings.
Unparalleled teaching and distinguished scholarship were mutually enhancing and indissolubly linked. It is not by chance that so many of his former pupils are in senior academic positions in both the United Kingdom and North America.
George returned to New College in 1977, having been elected Wykeham Professor. This was not an unmixed blessing. George was not much given to professing. Lectures for undergraduates continued inimitably, but they could not replace tutorials. There were graduates to supervise; he excelled, but they were too few. And of administration there was far too much. Important publication continued notwithstanding.
Return to New College meant return to the chalet in the French Alps above Les Houches. Reading parties of New College undergraduates went there with him every year, to their delight and to his. But not in 1993. He had managed to delay the onslaught of a vicious cancer until after his retirement in 1992. A heroic fighter throughout his life, he kept even death at bay until a few weeks after he and Margaret had been up the mountain with two reading parties in August 1997.
This was an astonishingly full and coherent life, and but for the power of the example its end would risk marking the end of an era in Oxford and in the doing of ancient history.
Editor James O’Fee writes – Thanks you so much, Peter, for all this extra detail. You were in fact the author of this obituary of a loved teacher and friend. Thank you very much for that. I’d have a few comments and queries;
1) I hadn’t realised that George served in the RAF during the War. He talked, jokingly, of how Greece after the War was divided up between the Oxford Colleges for the purposes of administration. Do you know anything of this?
2) Melina Mercouri! On a later holiday to Greece, Helen and I stayed in Tolo, in the Peloponnese. From there we made a coach trip one day to EPIDAVROS (Epidauros) to attend a performance in Greek (Modern, I think) of LYSISTRATA by Aristophanes in the balmy air of a Greek summer evening. There was a buzz of excitement before the performance began as Melina Mercouri arrived to take a seat in the front row to warm applause. A little afterwards another buzz as Margaret Papadopoulos (wife of the Greek Prime Minister) arrived. There was more applause as the two women embraced. An unforgettable occasion.
3) I didn’t appreciate that George was an opera-lover. I wonder how he fitted the wonderful music of Verdi and Puccini, and billiards, into the sweep of his tutorials?
4) As you have explained, George was fully aware of the modern world, and applied his unrivalled knowledge of the ancient to modern problems. George was very proud that one of his pupils had gone on to head a high-technology firm, perhaps Ferranti.
Peter Derow comments-
Thanks for this. I haven't got my original text, so I can't check the obit, but if that's what they sent you, then I suppose it must be what I wrote. But one thing doesn't seem quite right: there's no reference to the MG before the statement that it gave way to the Herald. It was the MG (one of the T-series) that he drove to Greece in the early 50s. At one point along the way it was regarded with some amazement and referred to in Greek as the 'mikroskopiko aftokinito' ='tiny car'. I thought that was all in the obit, but maybe not. See below for quick response to your queries.
1) You'll need to check details, but amongst those involved with the Greek resistance were Tony Andrewes, Peter Fraser and Eric Gray, all Oxford ancient historians. The other two most associated with this were Monty Woodhouse and another ancient historian, Nicholas Hammond.
[I’d plan to research these gentlemen later.-JHO’F]
2) Are you absolutely sure that it was 'Margaret Papadopoulos'?? Papadopoulos was prime minister under the junta (1967-74), and I doubt very much that Melina Mercouri would ever have embraced his wife. Was it perhaps rather Margaret Papandreou, wife of former prime minister and PASOK founder Andreas Papandreou (his wife was indeed Margaret, an impressive figure in her own right).
Apart from shared socialist principles, Melina Mercouri and George were allies very particularly in the cause of restoring the Parthenon sculptures (aka the 'Elgin marbles') to Greece. He was a founding member of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles (now the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles), and she was of course for a time the Greek Minister of Culture.
[What a howler! ‘Papadopoulos’ was, of course, the name of the chief ‘Colonel’ and enemy-in-chief of the democrats . I should have written ‘Margaret Papandreou’. On that evening in Epidavros, Melina Mercouri was the current Greek Minister of Culture, and well-known by the audience.-JHO’F]
3) He just did; tutorial sometimes ran on a bit. But the opera was never Wagner.
4) Not sure which it was, but yes, he prized his pupils.
I read both of George’s great works. The Emergence of Greek Democracy was on the reading list of a younger brother’s course in Ancient History. I was amazed to find it in my parents’ house. Both it and A History of Sparta were beautifully written, yet containing a huge sum of information.
Thanks very much, Peter, for all your help. Have a good term.-JHO’F
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