Alfred Felix Landon Beeston (1911-1995)
People will keep different memories of A.F.L. Beeston, who died on 29th September 1995, but in whatever guise he is remembered by any individual, whether as a teacher, a scholar, friend or "boon companion", Freddie himself was a delightful and supremely integrated person.
He was born at Barnes in 1911. At Westminster School he developed a love of languages, and he himself has told how in his teens he would attempt to transcribe and decipher Sabaean inscriptions at the British Museum. Having early on chosen a librarian’s career for himself, he came as a classical scholar to Christ Church, changed to oriental studies and got a first in Arabic and Persian. After his D.Phil. he entered the Bodleian Library. The war came and Freddie served as a lieutenant, then captain in the Intelligence Corps between November 1940 and April 1946. Back at the Bodleian, he became Sub-Librarian and Keeper of Oriental Books and Manuscripts and then, in 1957, he was elected Laudian Professor of Arabic, a career change over which he modestly hesitated. He held the chair until his retirement in 1979.
His knowledge of languages was extraordinarily extensive, famously stretching from Welsh, through Hungarian, to Chinese. Professionally he was the complete Semitic philologist, meticulous and accurate. His work, which continued after his retirement, produced in the field of South Arabian studies, always his greatest love, A Descriptive Grammar of Epigraphic South Arabian’ (1962) and A Sabaic Grammar’(1980). His varied scholarly output includes his contribution to the catalogue of the Persian, Turkish, Hindustani and Pushtu manuscripts in the Bodleian, his studies of the Arabic language, namely ‘The Arabic Language Today’ (1970) and ‘Written Arabic: An Approach to Basic Structures’ (1968), and also editions and translations of classical texts, such as al-Baidawi’s ‘Commentary on Sura 12 of the Qur’an’ (1963) and ‘The Singing Girls of al-Jahiz’ (1980). In 1965 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy. He was the recipient of two festschrifts, one entitled ‘Sayhadica’ (1987) presented by his colleagues in South Arabian studies.
Generations of students will testify to Freddie’s patient and solicitous teaching. To them and to younger colleagues he was a genial source of wisdom and advice. He kept in active touch with a remarkable number of sometime pupils. I did not have the privilege of being with Freddie in the Yemen or the Hadramawt, but I have fond memories of drinking Georgian wine with him at the Moscow Congress, of picnicking at Sakkara and seeing him plunge off across the desert "to pay my respects to the Hajji," and of sitting in a Cairo hotel and hearing his deep resonant voice order, with scant regard for local usage, "biratayn kabiratayn!" Freddie was fond of convivial company and good conversation but never paraded his wide reading and culture. In Oxford, where he was certainly a colourful figure, he will be sorely missed. At the Requiem Mass held at St Mary Magdalene, where Freddie, a deeply committed Christian, had worshipped since his undergraduate days, the Chaplain of St John’s stressed his dedication and attachment to that college of which he had been both Professorial and Emeritus Fellow How right, one could say, that he collapsed and died "within the curtilage of the college."