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The last of the Romans
Leofranc Holford-Strevens was already something of a legend even before his eagerly anticipated arrival at Oxford University Press.
“It was an event that no one who worked at the press at the time will every forget,” recalled the late Mick Belson in his book On The Press, about craftsmen at the great printing house.
For the advance publicity suggested that Dr Holford-Strevens was a man so clever and knew so many foreign languages that they could not find a place for him within the university.
The remarkable thing was that despite such billing, he did not disappoint.
And 40 years later, as he prepares to begin his retirement, Dr Holford-Strevens can rest assured he will be remembered as an OUP institution, epitomising all that is unique and learned about the finest university press in the world.
Dr Holford-Strevens, who today celebrates his 65th birthday, attended a party yesterday at the OUP in Walton Street to mark his retirement as consultant scholar editor.
He began work at the Oxford University Press back in 1971 in the printing division as a graduate proof reader and since then has cast his expert eye over many hundreds of heavyweight tomes, some near completion, some far from it.
It matters little if the books are in Latin, German or Russian, dictionaries, or if the subject is the classical texts of Euripides or musicology, Dr Holford-Strevens is able to spot any factual error or grammatical sloppiness.
He reckons to have proof read, or edited, well in excess of 500 books, sparing readers and eminent authors from embarrassing howlers or misplaced hyphens.
“I also proof read a lot of examination papers in the early years, particularly from Malaysia and Africa. The point was they could not be printed in those countries without the questions leaking out.”
Over the years the company has been transformed, with days of the printing presses and hot metal long gone, but the OUP’s great reader has seen and survived it all, with his intellectual input in this powerhouse of knowledge simply irreplaceable.
But he is likely to be best remembered as one of the OUP’s real characters.
When he first arrived, he was viewed as the epitome of an absent-minded professor.
Mr Belson described the first sighting: “He was dishevelled in his dress, wore a pork pie hat at a jaunty angle and somehow managed to read The Times while walking down the street missing lamp-posts by inches. He talked very fast and at such a high intellectual level that none of us knew what he was talking about.
“He would tell a classical joke and would be crying with laughter long before he got to the punchline. When he finally delivered it none of us could understand the joke but because of the joy it was obviously giving him, we would fall about laughing as if we understood.”
Dr Holford-Strevens, the son of a company secretary, was educated in London at the South Bank Grammar School. He arrived in Oxford in 1963 to read classics at Christ Church, staying on to complete his doctorate.
At OUP, graduate readers enjoyed a special staff status, drawing a monthly salary rather than a weekly wage supplemented by a bonus. They were also exempt from clocking in and out. They also tended to be good at languages.
As well as Latin, Dr Holford-Strevens tells me that he speaks all the Romantic languages (which as well as French, Italian and Spanish apparently includes Romanian) and the Germanic languages, along with Russian.
“To be any use as a classical scholar you have got to be able to read German. I learnt Russian as a boy because a boy in my form decided to learn the language when the Sputnik was launched. If he was going to, I thought I would. I suppose in total, I can handle about 40 languages.”
He quickly made an impression on the then head reader, Harold Boyce, a stalwart of the Salvation Army Band, by explaining to him, when another reader raised a query that no one else could solve, that men’s and women’s hockey were played to different rules.
Although fact checking was never part of the reader’s job, Dr Holford-Strevens was never afraid to put leading Oxford University academics right, scribbling corrections on proofs.
He recalls: “I once had to explain to a very well known Greek scholar that the classical Latin for Vienna is not Vienna. In Latin, Vienna is a place in France.
“Some authors were like Pontius Pilate — ‘what I have written I have written’. I was actually grateful to them. I much preferred them to authors who wanted to re-write books at the proof stage.”
The American musicologist Bonnie Blackburn was one author he particularly enjoyed working with.
He said: “In 1988, I was given her book A Correspondence of Renaissance Musicians because I understood Italian. But it meant me having to learn about musical notation in the 15th and 16th centuries.”
The work required regular correspondence between him and the author.
“One thing led to another and we got married.”
A true meeting of great minds and they went on to write a book together, the Oxford Companion to the Year.
For him, the compositors who worked at OUP were the true craftsmen, who through years of experience could set exotic languages in print without having learnt them.
Dr Holford-Strevens, of St Bernard’s Road, Oxford, readily recalls the father of the printers’ union chapel, who regularly set Russian texts.
“Although I knew Russian, and he did not, he put me to shame by his ability to read it in handwriting, which I knew only in its textbook form.
“When I joined OUP, the printer made the money and the publisher lost it.”
The end of the hot metal era, he believes, ironically made the reader’s job more difficult.
“When things were set by apprentices there would be lots of errors. The problem with computer setting is that you go so long without finding a mistake that when there is one you may have been lulled into inattention.”
His final epic read could hardly be more fitting, taking in many of his great interests.
“I am just about to hand in a commentary on Julius Caesar’s De Analogia.”
It is the treatise on Latin that the great warrior found time to write in the middle of a bloody campaign.
And in ‘retirement’ it seems there will be little time for gardening.
He will be returning to writing about one of his favourite subjects, the 2nd century Roman writer Aulus Gellius, who it is no surprise to learn took a particular interest in questions of grammar and literary style.
What could be a more fitting subject for the last of the OUP Romans?
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