207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
An address given by Professor H Macl. Currie
at the Memorial Service on 15th December, 1989, for
DAVID MOWBRAY BALME CMG DSO DFC MA LLD DLitt
at the University Church of Christ The King, Gordon Square, London
What most eludes is not the excellence of his gifts,
but the singularity of his essential being'.
So wrote AE Houseman of his colleague at University College London, Arthur Platt, who had held the chair of Greek there.
The words apply also to David Balme whom we have gathered to remember today. His character was original and strongly marked. This does not mean that he was assertive or eccentric. Courteous and friendly in his bearing, he yet had a deep inner strength which enabled him to pursue objectives maybe as yet unrecognised by others.He saw the value of a course-units system and of 'Classics in Translation' courses long before most of the rest of us.
Presaging the dark days ahead, he helped to found nearly thirty years ago the Joint Association of Classical Teachers and set it upon a sure foundation. He was no idiot savant. And he realistically knew when to call a halt; he would not press a matter beyond what was reasonable or possible. He introduced oral Latin at Queen Mary College with a persistent patience to test whether students' understanding and appreciation of texts could be improved by this kind of exposure to the language, an experiment which he at length acknowledged had not fulfilled expectations.
In a profession in which learning is often more evident than practicality, David Balme stood out as a man of unfailing good sense. His work in Africa as founding father of what was to become the University of Ghana, was exemplary. He gave it a liberal constitution as well as an attractive and well planned campus. I can well imagine him in colloquy with architects, encouraging them to share his vision. Academically, he secured a place for classics in the curriculum there, rightly arguing that emergent Africa had much to learn from the civilisations of Greece and Rome.
Excellence was his watchword. Purely academic studies - 'the severer the better' - provided in his view a basic moral and intellectual education which fitted its possessors uniquely for life and work. He was a creative person, ever ready to try to light a candle rather than complain about the dark. His presence on any committee was salutary. Over the many years I knew him, I seemed to notice that in formal discussion and debate, he progressively tended to say less and less and yet somehow to mean more, and to useful effect. There was nothing rhetorical or histrionic about his style. As a leader he did not consider that he always had to be out in front, believing that sometimes one had to lead from behind or even below. His manner was quiet and steady, but impressive.
He was multifaceted yet internally consistent. When he went to live in Leicestershire he took to fox hunting, and eventually to sheep-rearing. He had a special love of horses, and I recall talking about them with him and about Dean Swift's idealisation of them in the form of the noble and rational Houyhnhruns. He loved music, he played the piano, he read widely, not least in theology. In his Beckenham days he regularly cycled the twelve miles between home and Queen Mary College by way of the Blackwall Tunnel wearing a 'gorblimey' cap, gauntlets and a mask to protect him from the petrol fumes.
He never undertook anything merely to follow fashion. He was his own man. Beneath a conventional exterior there existed a spirit which took pleasure in the oddness of things. He decided once to keep chickens at Beckenham. I asked him where he got them. 'Harrods', he replied with a grin. Bread-making was another of his interests.
Physical courage, too, of the highest order was amongst the diverse elements in his character. The number of casualties in Bomber Command during the war was exceedingly high. I never once heard him mention his time as a pilot, but a DSO and a DFC are personal awards and not distributed at random.
He was modest, sometimes to the point of inscrutability. I remember a conversation on a social occasion. The subject of the BBC's then current series entitled Learn Chinese came up and someone turned to David and asked if he had availed himself of the opportunity. 'Well no', he replied hesitantly, and then added for the sake of politeness, 'Chinese was, in fact, my first language.' This was true: his father held a university post in surgery in that country and David Balme spent some of his early years there, with a native nanny in attendance. 'I could ask for a biscuit in Chinese before I could do so in English', he remarked.
His humour was ironical and quizzical. He once set the Greek prose for the BA General degree and he asked me for suggestions about a suitable English source (not that he really needed advice on such a matter). Somewhat less than seriously I replied that Prescott's Conquest of Mexico would easily produce a suitable narrative passage and that he would probably find that work in that the London Library, of which he was a member. 'Ah Yes', he said smiling, 'I can just go in and ask for any volume of it'. Sometimes too there was a fatalistic tinge to his humour.
With his great range of experience and his wisdom, David Balme was a very interesting man to know. There was nothing didactic or portentous about him, nor did he talk for victory; he sought dialogue. As a head of department he was always open to new ideas from his colleagues, and generous in his dealings with them. His general approach was unassuming, but one was never unaware of a first-rate intellect joined to a firmness of purpose. He usually knew where he wanted to be, though the details of the route were a matter for discussion. Warmth, sanity, and simplicity are qualities which I shall always associate with him.
In scholarship his concern was with Greek philosophy and in particular with the biological writings of Aristotle. These had received little, if any, systematic attention until the present century, and David Balme was a principal figure in the development of this field of study. Its importance for the growth of Aristotle's philosophy as a whole has been found to be considerable. The philosopher himself recognised that biology could be repellent, but urged his students to avoid a childish distaste for examining the less valued animals because 'in all natural things there is something wonderful' - a fine sentiment from a passage in de Partibus Animalium which David Balme in his edition of selections from that work and from de Generatione Animalium (Oxford, 1972) describes as 'written in very beautiful natural Greek'. His own response to nature was not unlike Aristotle's.
David Balme had once intended to study medicine and he maintained a knowledgable interest in zoology throughout his life. In the early 1960s he went to Greece to visit the waters where Aristotle had found his specimens and to discuss their catches with the local fishermen (some of them perhaps descendants of those whom Aristotle knew) the better to understand the texts with which he dealt. One wonders what the fishermen made of the enquiring Englishman in their midst.
As a scholar David Balme was austere. The problems and challenge of Greek thought occupied his attention, but even here he could surprise. Once in conversation, when I had mentioned the difficulty I was having in persuading the class with whom I was reading a Plautine comedy that the lines could actually be made to scan, he revealed an interest in, and knowledge of, early Latin metre, a subject quite some way from his usual pursuits. At another time we found ourselves discussing how to render in a Latin elegaic couplet the memorable observation of Ogden Nash:
Shake and shake the ketchup bottle:
None will come and then a Lot'll.
His outstanding contribution to his branch of Aristotelian research was marked by a Festschrift, Aristotle on Nature and Living Things, published under the editorship of Allan Gotthelf in 1985. This contains papers by an international group of twenty-four academics. Its appearance astonished David.
Walter de la Mare dedicated his last book of poems 'to the young of all ages'. David Balme did not seem to age. His outlook to the end remained fresh and interested. Four weeks before he died, a friend and I, both old colleagues of his, visited him at home and found the same humour and the same spirit even though illness had weakened him physically.
At this service we are thankfully remembering before God a man of varied gifts and high character who served his generation faithfully and well. David Balme's own trust in God is something which should not be omitted in any account of him.
Alfred Harbage has studied Shakespeare's ideal man. Having collected the approving references he finds that this ideal man is soldierly, scholarly, and honest - which is fine description of David himself.
Pascal in the Pensées, reflecting a passage in Montaigne's essay On Profit and Honesty, remarks thus:
I cannot admire the excess of any virtue, such as valour, if I do not see at the same time the excess of the opposite virtue - as in Epameinondas, who had the extreme of courage and humanity.
Pascal goes on to insist that greatness is to be found not at one extreme but in the touching of two extremes so as to fill all the in-between. David Balme with his courage and his human sympathy did just that and was thus a whole man. To be tough without humanity is to be merely brutal, to be humane without toughness is to be merely feeble.
But for our last word let us turn to antiquity.
Aristotle's friend and patron, Hermeias, tyrant of Atarneus, held humane and liberal ideas. He died by torture at the hands of the Persians, refusing to reveal what he knew of the rapidly maturing Macedon's political intentions. In admiration Aristotle wrote a poem in honour of Hermeias likening him to Ajax and Achilles of old who had reckoned death a cheap price in their pursuit of X (which we render, inadequately, as 'virtue' or 'excellence'). To this heroic and humane tradition the man we commemorate today belongs. And before Aristotle, Plato's Diotima in the Symposium had spoken to Socrates in the same strain of Y as a fundamental principle in life - that immortal which, to quote her, 'all men long for, and long for the more the worthier they be.'
David Balmes long-awaited major critical edition of Aristotles largest and perhaps least studied treatise is based on a collation of the twenty-six known extant manuscripts and a study of the early Latin translations.
Begun in 1975, this edition of all ten books, including a very full apparatus criticus, was largely complete by 1989 when Professor Balme died but it needed extensive work to put it in publishable form. This work has been carried out by Allan Gotthelf, Balmes friend and associate.
Volume I of the edition contains the complete text of the Historia Animalium, the critical apparatus, and Balmes introduction to the manuscripts, expanded and updated with the assistance of Friederike Berger, and in consultation with other experts.
Volume II will contain Balmes introduction to the treatise, his commentary on books I-VII(VIII), and the supplementary materials he provided to aid in the understanding of this treatise.
Planned to be available from July 2002