Tribute to Copper
It is shattering to lose Copper. He and Penelope had long been a seamless unit patently content in each other’s company and each clearly heavily reliant on the other.
I knew him best in the fifties after he had been appointed to a Chair at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg generally known as Wits. Very soon after arriving he was catapulted into a very senior administrative position at the University as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the ridiculously young age of 32.
He made an immediate impact on the University and on Johannesburg and was soon well known well beyond purely academic circles.
He was incredibly lively, always with a challenging group of friends round him, lots of them were colleagues from different faculties at Wits from Mining to Physics to English and anything in between, there were also newspaper people, politicians opposed to the apartheid government and a variety of others, always bright and always entertaining.
He made no secret of his disapproval of the political changes that were happening in South Africa and inevitably attracted the suspicion of the increasingly authoritarian government. He was an active member of the Progressive Party and worked closely with Helen Suzman who remained a close friend for the rest of her life. He gave evidence towards the end of the enquiry into the Sharpeville riots and was swept up in the grateful arms of Nelson Mandela when he finished.
In a quite sinister environment, with friends and colleagues being incarcerated or banished from the country he kept his mischievous sense of humour but it was not the atmosphere that he wanted to work in and eventually announced his intention of leaving the country. When he did leave, the news made headlines and he featured as the subject of the cartoon of the day in the Rand Daily Mail, the pro progressive party supporting Johannesburg morning paper.
But some years before then on the eve of a conference that he was running, he had telephoned me at my office in some distress as his secretary, Deborah who happened to be the daughter of the last Governor General, Patrick Duncan, had done a runner with one of the staff of the University of Cape Town who was to have been at the conference too. So Copper urgently needed someone to take her place. It happened that my sister had decided to give up her job as an architect in a Johannesburg practice that very week so I introduced him to Penelope who he had never met and she helped him run his conference and they never looked back.
For fifty years she provided a totally reliable platform for him domestically and socially and gave him the freedom to concentrate on his College activities and his teaching and I believe she was probably the only part of his life more important to him than his beloved Worcester.
After settling back in Oxford in the sixties, Copper enjoyed a very productive period not only as a tutor at Worcester and as a visiting lecturer at various American Universities, but also as an author. In another landmark in his career he was used as an expert witness in the case of the Richard Crossman diaries through his special knowledge of cabinet government and the British Constitution.
Copper was a wonderful companion and never at a loss for words, but he never said more than he wanted to say. I know that he was ahead of all his contemporaries academically at school, but I would have liked to know details of the distinctions and prizes he had won. Sadly neither his school, Michaelhouse nor Rhodes University were able to give me any details of his achievements as their archivists were all away for the Christmas holidays. All they knew was that he read economics and history between 1940 and 1942 and was given a BA in 1942. If Rhodes doesn’t have access to records about Copper, it was a centrally important influence on his life. The friendships that he made there were to endure for all time, there were dons who he looked up to with almost reverential admiration and there were contemporary colleagues who were friends as long as they lived whether they ended up teaching in Texas. Australia or Newfoundland. I think he went on teaching at Rhodes until coming up to Worcester as a Rhodes Scholar. But Google suggests that he was busy writing Winston Churchill’s speeches. He never told me.
I will not attempt to assess his academic achievements, there are many here who can do that far better than I, suffice it to say that his record from his early schooldays was to be ahead of all his immediate contemporaries, but he was no dull swot at school or at any time thereafter. So he was a keen cricketer, a member of Vincents and of the MCC and a successful hockey goalkeeper. It is said that he reduced his run up from four steps to three after he lost his leg but went on bowling his leg breaks. He was also a single figure golfer who much enjoyed tormenting his opponents with good golf and with the so called rules that he would dream up “on the twelfth hole it is necessary to borrow half a crown from your opponent which must be buried under a tree as a sacrifice to placate the wood gods”.
I first met Copper (already quite bald) in 1942 and I can vouch for the exceptional quality of his ever loyal and delightfully cheerful friendship which never flagged. His many (probably running into thousands) of pupils world wide will vouch for his brilliant teaching. He was altogether a most entertaining and unforgettable person in so many different ways and his memory will long survive.