A lesson for life – Thank you, Dr P.

By Vincent Guy

Photo by Roger Mayne

I can’t say I learned a lot at Oxford University, but I did get a lesson for life from Dr Zbigniew Pelczynski. He taught Politics at Pembroke, Oxford, when I was there in the 1960s reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics. An impressive man, tall, blond and handsome, he could have played the starring role in Andrei Wajda’s film Kanal. In fact, he did better than that: he’d actually been there in the Polish Resistance fighting the Nazis. Having escaped, he came to Britain and academic life, making a name for himself as the go-to fellow for Hegelian theory. Among his students were Bill Clinton and Viktor Orbán.

Following Zbigniew’s retirement, he served as an advisor to the Polish government in the re-establishment of democracy in the country after the collapse of Communism. He was awarded OBE in 1993, in recognition of his contributions to British-Polish relations. He also worked closely with George Soros, developing leadership skills in Eastern Europe.

He died in June this year, aged 91. Though I never quite got the gist of Hegel, he taught me something more than political ideas.

The following small tribute by me was included in David McAvoy's biography: Zbigniew Pelczynski: A Life Remembered. The good doctor himself was kind enough to say this piece delighted him.

Most of my time at Oxford I spent doing theatre with O.U.D.S. or chasing girls (somewhat unsuccessfully given the sex ratios prevailing at the time). A few months before Finals came a mock exam - “Collections” I think it was rather exotically called – and of course I knew nothing. The questions? I couldn’t even understand what they were referring to, yet alone answer them. Duly flunked, flopped, failed; no exotic terminology needed for that.

In despair, I went to Dr Pelczynski, my “Moral Tutor”, for a solution. Could I go down, rusticate myself, do something about the Chiltern Hundreds I vaguely recalled from a Politics tutorial? Could he postpone my Finals, or should I just end it all, whatever “it” might be?

We briefly discussed my results, with a glance at the question papers which still made no sense to me at all. The Doctor, in his dry, slightly croaky voice said simply “Mr Guy, I think you had better do some work”.

This was the most exotic idea of all! I had never done any work, having relied so far in life on blarney and a sense of effortless superiority. Nobody had explained to me that effortlessness was something only taught at Balliol, not the more workaday Pembroke.

Dr Pelczynski then spent a few moments analysing this “work” concept. Timetables, reading lists, note-taking, getting up in the morning; all got a mention, I suppose. To be honest, the details now escape me. What still reverberates in my mind, what I have frequently passed on to the deserving young, what I have even applied again myself when things got really desperate was that simple recommendation to do the blindingly obvious: work.

I did, just enough, and got an honourable degree.

Vincent Guy

PPE, Pembroke College, 1962-65