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He was not, and would not have wished to be, any kind of saint, but he was a good man, with feet of top-quality clay, and had in abundance what in others he called ‘moral charm’. This attribute was particularly striking in his manner of conversation, which could unsettle those new to it. He did not stick to the point, but would sit back, look up, and follow his interest where it led, happily digressing, digressing from digressions, and unceremoniously returning to the topic of his own previous remarks, or changing the subject, apparently oblivious of what his interlocutor may have been saying, even at some length, in the interim. 
This last idiosyncrasy might have seemed impolite in other hands, but in him it was clearly unselfconscious, and demonstrated his absorption in the issue before his mind, which he would pursue almost playfully, often in odd directions. Although talking to him made one’s mind race, it could be infuriating if one wanted to sort out some problem and come to a clear conclusion, and he was not always an attentive listener – sometimes because he had a shrewd idea of what one was going to say before one had said it.

He had little taste for (or skill in) purely verbal word-play, but his wit, in the wider sense, was matchless. He could be bewilderingly quick in the uptake, and equally quick with an illuminating response. He was refreshingly direct and, for a man of his generation, unusually open: he made the obsessive circumspection of some parts of the Oxford establishment seem mean and life-denying by comparison. Gossip and anecdote abounded, but not malevolently: indeed, he was virtually incapable of innuendo, and did not seek to score points. Even when he propounded an unfavourable view of someone, it could seem more like a move in a game than a damning judgement. He loved ranking people, and sorting them into types: most famously, hedgehogs and foxes – those in the grip of a single, all-embracing vision as against those who are more receptive to variousness. Indeed, his taste for light-hearted categorisation was an informal manifestation of his ability to extract and display the essence of a person or a difficult writer. 

As a lecturer he had complete command of his material, and was spellbinding to listen to (fortunately several of his lectures were recorded, and can now be heard at the National Sound Archive in London). He was consciously but not self-consciously Jewish, and a lifelong Zionist: his role in the creation of the State of Israel was not insignificant. He was a Director of Covent Garden and a devoted opera-goer; he was a Trustee of the National Gallery. He did not lack recognition – a knighthood, the OM, many honorary doctorates, the Mellon Lectureship, the Presidency of the British Academy, the Jerusalem, Erasmus, Agnelli and Lippincott Prizes – but always protested that he was being given more than his due, that his achievements had been systematically overestimated. He was larger than life, entirely sui generis, a phenomenon, irreplaceable. 
© Copyright Henry Hardy 1997 N E X T > > 

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