Obituary: Professor W. S. Watt ; Textual Scholar and Editor of Cicero's Letters

Article excerpt

W. S. WATT was a distinguished Latin scholar, an exacting but generous and warm-hearted teacher, and an administrator of exceptional ability and efficiency.

Born at Harthill in Lanarkshire of farming stock, Bill Watt went from Airdrie Academy to Glasgow University in 1929, when he was not much over 16. He excelled: at the end of his four-year course he was awarded the Logan medal as the most distinguished Arts graduate of the year. Of his teachers at Glasgow, he claimed that R.G. Austin had the greatest influence on him. In their written works, they are very different, for Watt's sparse and austere writings had little room for the engaging humanity of Austin's Virgil commentaries. But there was no doubt an underlying affinity, and certainly a long- enduring friendship.

Watt went on to Balliol as a Snell Exhibitioner - the traditional path of the outstanding Glasgow graduate - in 1933. There too he had a prizewinning career, and in 1937, even before he took Greats, he was invited to succeed his former tutor, Cyril Bailey, as Fellow in Classics. He spent a year as a temporary lecturer in Greek and Greek History at Glasgow, and took up his Balliol appointment in 1938.

Thus those who entered Balliol in the troubled times of 1938-40 found Bill Watt there as a young and enthusiastic tutor, under whose guidance some pretence of normality could be maintained by means of a rigorous routine of work. His weak eyesight led to his being rejected for military service, but in May 1941 he joined the Inter- Services Topographical Department, an intelligence organisation based in Oxford whose task was to provide detailed geographical information about areas where operations were being planned.

Watt's contribution was notable. He was pleased to receive from Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, a testimonial which spoke of his "strong personality and remarkable practical and intellectual ability" and ended, "One has the feeling that Mr Watt could take on any job with equal ability."

All this went on in a blacked-out and rather silent Oxford; but there were changes. I recall passing through on leave in the last year of the Second World War and thinking that I would perhaps call on Bill; in his room I found only a charming ATS officer: this was Dorothea (Thea) Codrington Smith, whom he had lately married, and who was to bring him so much happiness for the rest of his life.

Watt resumed work at Balliol in 1945, and remained there till 1952. He was a very successful tutor, half of whose pupils obtained Firsts in the examination for which he prepared them. He got into the habit of recording the examination results of all colleges, and in 1949 he published anonymously a table of these covering the last three years - a prototype of the later famous, or notorious, Norrington Tables.

His scholarly interests were now concentrated on Latin, and especially on Cicero's letters. In those days, textual criticism was a large part of the Oxford classical curriculum. Watt's lectures, like those of his friend and wartime colleague W.S. Barrett on Euripides, brought the art of expounding these matters to an unexampled pitch of perfection. Diagnosis of the corruption, enumeration of earlier solutions and dismissal of most of them, and finally (if possible) a probable answer: these were the constituents of what one might almost regard as a minor literary genre and a great deal of Watt's later published work in fact took precisely this form. For those who appreciated them, these lectures showed what scholarship really meant. …