Nigel Christopher Ransome Williams (1949-1955)

Died on 27th August 2019, aged 82

Nigel Williams was born in 1937 and came up to St John's in 1957 to read Literae Humaniores. He died on 27 August 2019. We are grateful to Professor Sir Brian Harrison for this appreciation.

Born in 1937, Nigel grew up in a cultivated family with his younger brother Hugh. His father, a solicitor with wide interests, was Town Clerk of Rickmansworth and his mother sang at concerts under her stage-name, Corinne Belden. In middle life Nigel dropped 'Ransome' from his surname; it was the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, and his father had incorporated it into his surname only from administrative convenience. At Merchant Taylors' School, Northwood, Nigel excelled in classical studies, developed strong musical interests, and at local concerts usually brought the score with him. Our lifelong friendship grew out of a shared, and still to my mind rational, distaste for compulsory rugby football on cold winter Saturday afternoons; Nigel's precocious diplomatic skills were honed on the enviable ingenuity of his excuses for evading it. After national service as a second lieutenant with the Royal Signals (1955-57) in West Germany, he studied Mods and Greats at St John's (1957- 61), winning all three key university classics prizes: Craven, Hertford and Ireland. Twice during Greats translation papers, fellow examinees were astonished to see him leaving the room well before the allotted time. His double first enhanced his lifelong love of the classics, and whenever in Oxford he visited Donald Russell, who placed him among the top three or four of his St John's pupils.

The Foreign Service, then the great career, led Nigel to learn Japanese and took him to prominent posts in New York, Tokyo, and Bonn before he became British ambassador to Denmark (1989-93) and UK permanent representative to the United Nations at Geneva (1993-97). Authoritative and decisive in an emergency, lucid in drafting, liked and respected by colleagues, he really cared about outcomes, and was appointed CMG in 1985. His short Who's Who entry omitted his recreations (music and travel). After preparing carefully for his numerous travels worldwide, sensibly contracting his range with age, he stored up his experiences in photo albums, and responded generously to requests for touristic advice. He retired to Blakeney, where he gardened, welcomed guests and exhaustively explored Norfolk churches.

Nigel's unusual combination of qualities intrigued many people. His measured conversation and rational outlook did not preclude maverick outbursts of whimsical fantasy. His sudden, brief and seemingly incongruous conversion to Moral Rearmament in 1960 led to a sudden de-conversion in the College garden which in later years he often recalled; thereafter he quietly but forensically criticised religion of any kind. Though a generous and resourceful host, he was a laconic correspondent, and kept his friends in separate compartments, assiduously catching up with them in periodic 'progresses' round the UK, bearing gifts to his many godchildren. He was reticent and quietly spoken, quieter still in later life, and - in Denmark as in Japan - his linguistic perfectionism limited the range of his overseas sociability. Music was for him a lifelong passion: he was an early enthusiast for Mahler, later supplanted by Wagner. His capacious memory enabled him to recall in detail and at will the plots of little-known operas, and he would have gone to Bogota or Timbuktu to experience an abstruse Monteverdi performance. When ambassador in Copenhagen he befriended and assisted young professional musicians, and eventually moved there, where he lived unobtrusively. Leaving precise instructions on funeral arrangements, he died alone of an embolism in his flat on 27 August 2019, with only one English friend at his funeral, about which the others learned only later.

Professor Sir Brian Harrison (1950-1956)


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