The Notable - FREDERICK WILLIAM CLAYTON 1919-1999
The following eulogy on Frederick William Clayton has been sent by Bill Pobjoy (32/40), who was a friend of Frederick`s younger brother George (32/40) and shared with him the Vice Captaincy of the School, before Bill became School Captain.. Members will recall that George was Guest Speaker at our Annual Dinner a few years ago and since then has died.
Bill describes Frederick as being `a legend` and he came across the eulogy recently in a publication on "The Comedies of Terence, translated by Frederick W. Clayton", introduced by Matthew Leigh in the posthumous edition of 2006 - by which time Leigh, who had been a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at Exeter University, where Frederick had been a Professor, was Fellow and Tutor in Classics at St. Anne`s College, Oxford.
The eulogy was written by Margaret Trudeau-Clayton, thought to be a granddaughter of Frederick, and the volume in which it appeared was published by The University of Exeter Press, Read Hall, Streathane Driver, Exeter, viz:-
Frederick William Clayton 1913-1999 The Man and His Work
Born in 1913 to relatively modest parents - his father was headmaster of a village school near Liverpool - the second of three exceptional boys, Frederick William Clayton was soon recognized as intellectually gifted. Consequently 'trained like a racehorse', as he put it, at the Liverpool Collegiate School, he took the fences easily to win one of only four open scholarships which were not reserved for Etonians and went up to King's College Cambridge to read Classics before his eighteenth birthday in 1931. His undergraduate career at King's was spectacular: he swept up prizes including prizes for original verse in English as well as in Latin and Greek. His exceptional talent communicated itself to others destined to achieve wider and more permanent recognition: Alan Turing, for instance, would describe him as 'the most learned man I ever met". On the social front too he enjoyed success, despite or perhaps partly because of his origins. 'Did I conquer the place by being so hovel—so naive but potentially promising?' he was later to wonder. In particular he was taken up by Maynard Keynes, who made sure that he met such prominent cultural figures as Maurice Bowra, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster and George 'Dadie' Rylands, who was later to describe him as one of the most brilliant scholars of his generation. Under Dadie's direction he also excelled in theatrical productions of the Marlowe Society, notably as the fool in King Lear and as one of the gravediggers in Hamlet, roles in which he made the most of a Liverpool accent for which he was otherwise mocked by fellow public school students. Never attempting to deny his origins he developed a good-humoured critical awareness of English class snobbery: chuckling at the naivety of the elite classes as much as his own, he would, for instance, tell how, at a dinner party given by Keynes, he was faced with a plate of oysters for the first time in his life and asked by his host: Well, Clayton, which are you, a swallower or a chewer?'
His academic success was rewarded in 1937 by a prize fellowship for a dissertation on Edward Gibbon. Prior to taking this up he went to Vienna to learn German and spent a year teaching at the Kreuzschule in Dresden. This defining experience provided the raw material for the one book he was to publish, a novel called The Cloven Pine, which was published in 1942 under the pseudonym Frank Clare The book, he wrote later, was intended 'to depict German boys as creatures to be loved and pitied,... as one might feel for any young creature trapped and condemned'. But it was more than that, as E M Forster recognised in a letter of encouraging praise. For interwoven with the more personal narrative is a trenchant analysis of the character and origins of Nazism, including its relation to romantic aesthetics, and the limits of ration¬ality in dealing with it. As Forster also remarked, it was not a book likely to go down well in Britain in 1942. At least one copy was sent back to the publisher by an indignant public librarian. But there were more positive responses including a sympathetic review by Elizabeth Bowen.
This was, however, in 1942. During his stay in Germany Fred Clayton had become increasingly concerned by the failure of most Western politicans to understand the threat posed by Nazism and Fascism. Unlike many observers : of the German political scene he had actually read Mein Kampf and found it very disturbing as well as stupid. Convinced that war was inevitable he. felt compelled on his return to write to politicians imploring them to reject appeasement. And yet he belonged to the generation that had grown up with fathers no longer silent about the horrors of war and 'never again' had been the common chorus. With the turbulence of the 1930s—the outbreak of the Spanish civil war and Italy's annexation of Abyssinia in 1936 - student opinion had become increasingly polarized. While the Oxford Union voted never again to fight for King and Country, a substantial number in Cambridge turned to Communism as the only safeguard of peace. As a grammar school boy of modest origins it was assumed that Fred Clayton would be naturally sympathetic to the cause. But impatient with Old Etonians like Guy Burgess trading on their style and charm and pontificating about the working class, he resisted attempts to recruit him: 'I didn't like their tactics. I didn't like being encircled.'
Meanwhile his compassion for young creatures trapped and condemned expressed itself in practical action: in 1938, with Alan Turing, he was instrumental in getting two Viennese boys to England, although he could not save their Jewish mother, who in 1942 wrote to thank him from Poland where she disappeared. Later he would look back on this as the redeeming act of his life. And his compassionate sympathy for the victims of war and its attendant abuse of power stayed with him, as the epilogue which he added to his translation of The Mother-in-Law, and which is quoted by Matthew Leigh, powerfully attests. .
Though it is difficult to imagine anyone less fitted for the military life, Fred Clayton joined the Royal Signal Corps in the summer of 1940 only to find ' himself whisked away to Bletchley Park where he immediately made his mark, by successfully decoding Luftwaffe material. Yet, though he was fluent in. Germans and without any knowledge of Japanese, the military authorities; talked him into a posting as a breaker of Japanese codes in India and Burma; He agreed, partly, as he later confessed to his brother George, because he felt that until then he had had a 'rather soft war'. He soon found himself shuttled between Delhi and Barrackpore, his services as code-breaker fought over by 'two rival colonels. 'The war', he wrote later when reflecting on how his mind came to work as it did, 'made guessing my game, if you can call it guessing, and not the imagination and logic of a verbal mind pushed to its limits.' But it was not only his mind that was pushed to its limits. Although it was generally accepted that exposure to the hardships of the Indian and Burmese theatre of war for more than two years constituted a health risk, he stayed for three and a half years, to return six months after VJ day in 1946. By this time he had been pushed beyond his psychological as well as physical limits and had suffered a severe breakdown. Though he recovered remarkably quickly, thanks largely to the care of his brother, his psychic health had been irreversibly damaged. He was as much a casualty of the war as if he had lost; a leg or an arm. The tragic irony is that British Intelligence subsequently admitted that this man, who had been so insistent in his warnings about Nazism, had been posted far from Europe, because he was regarded as too pro-German. It was difficult, if not impossible, for the authorities to imagine that a man could be wholly committed to War with a regime while still remaining attached to those trapped by it. And attached he still was: in India in 1942 he would wake from prophetic nightmares of 'Dresden being bombed, of all those boys being slaughtered'.
Once the war was over he sought to re-establish contact with the family that had welcomed him in 1936. The youngest daughter - Friederike -wrote back. She too had had a devastating war: her brother Gotz (one of the trapped young creatures Fred was thinking of) had been shot by snipers on .the march into Poland at the age of 18 and the deaths of her parents had soon followed. Only days after the bombing in February 1945 she had walked through a still smoking Dresden, oppressed by the stench of the slaughter, to face the Russians. They began to correspond and in 1948 Frederick and Friederike were married. Theirs is indeed an extraordinary love story which it is hard to resist reading symbolically, like the marriages of three of their four children, to Italian, Irish and French partners respectively. The 'united nations' he would fondly and proudly call his family. Here at last was stability, love and a kind of success.
There was success and stability in the professional sphere too. In 1948, after two years at the University of Edinburgh, he was appointed Professor of Classics at the University College of the South West, which, in 1955, became the University of Exeter. From 1962 to 1965 he was Dean of the Arts Faculty and from 1965 to 1973 Public Orator, long remembered for the wit, elegance and erudition of his speeches. His skill in handling the English language is evident too in his translations of the plays of Terence, which are published here for the first time and which were produced during the early years at Exeter. Amongst his papers is a letter dated 1962, from E V Rieu, editor of the Penguin Classics series, who, evidently appreciative .of what he has read, expresses regret that a translation in prose had already been commissioned for the series. With his extraordinary range of vocabulary and his acute sense of rhythm Fred Clayton had risen to the challenge of a verse translation* opting specifically for rhyming couplets which, far from having the stilted effect one might expect, carry the reader with them. The plays indeed acquire an immediacy and a startling contemporaneity in these translations, a contemporaneity which is foregrounded in the epilogue which Clayton added to The Mother-in-Law.
Here then was the young man who had won prizes at King's for English verse. But where was the brilliant scholar? Why, once settled, did he not produce a stream of learned books and articles? Certainly, he continued to have ideas. With a memory full of the Latin and English literature he had read to stave off boredom in India and a mind habituated through his work as code-breaker to lateral connections, he began 'in about 1950' to notice 'in both Latin and English... curious apparent echoes of quotations, conscious or uncon¬scious, inside a single author or between authors, based on associated ideas or words.' Two areas came to fascinate him: astrology in Horace and the echoes-of Latin writers in Shakespeare. But he was on his own, unlike those colleagues who had stayed at Bletchley Park and who had continued their academic work in their spare time. When one of these dismissed his ideas about Horace at a seminar in Cambridge, he was shattered. It was the final blow to an already damaged self-confidence and he never risked airing these ideas in public again. He worked obsessively with concordances trying to prove in those pre-computer days that the collocations of words and phrases that leapt out at him were not simply random. 'If ever I publish a book', he said, 'I shall give it as a subtitle, "A Consideration of Coincidences".'
But no book would be published, only a lecture on the echoes of Latin texts in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mixing personal memoir with virtuous leaps from text to text and from one set of verbal associations to another, the piece is at once brilliant and impenetrable. Yet it has its admirers, notably the current editor of the third Arden edition of the play, who commented to one of his daughters just before his death, 'your father was before his time'. Undoubtedly, in his intellectual endeavours, he was before his time and it is to be hoped that, thanks to posthumous publications, he will at last receive some of the recognition he deserved. Yet he was also of his time - trapped and condemned to severe, lifelong mental distress by the hideous twentieth century through which he lived—like Ariel imprisoned by the witch Sycorax in the cloven pine.
Epilogue to The Mother-in-Law
My modern audience wants my modern moral?
© Liverpool Collegiate Old Boys' Association (2018)