‘I’m not sure how many readers know the name of Anthony Smith’, asks Douglas Murray of the former President of Magdalen College, Oxford, in today’s edition of The Spectator. ‘But while not every reader will know him, you are lucky if you know the type: that rare person whose passion is helping other people — the type, in other words, who makes the world work.’
I have a single anecdote to contribute. At the age of eighteen, on leaving school, I spent two months at the British Institute in Florence. I took a course in art history and another in Italian. I noticed, on arrival, an elderly gentleman being persuaded by the director to forgo elementary tuition in favour of something a little more suited to his years, which he accepted with reluctance. In due course I met this gentleman on a tour of a church. He asked me to translate a Latin inscription around a font, vel sim. This was not easy: the language less than classical, and I recall an ‘ut’ clause inside an ‘ut’ clause, although I must try to look up the details. However, I succeeded before we moved on. My reward was effusive congratulation, which was reassuring to one inclined to reticence, and an invitation to join him for tea at the President’s lodgings when I went up to Merton the following year.
Douglas Murray mentions how he first approached Anthony Smith at the age of sixteen: ‘I first met him when I was a precocious schoolboy of 16. I had asked permission from Magdalen’s librarian to look at some manuscripts for a book I was researching.’ This strikes a related chord. I made a comparably precocious approach at about the same age to Fr. Frederick Copleston, the philosopher, at Campion Hall, which was received with like generosity: I spent a morning in his company, two years before his death (as I since discovered), and I have thought with great fondness of the Society of Jesus ever since.
It would be good to collect further examples of similar acts of kindness done unto schoolboys. They are likely seldom forgotten.