Peter Sinclair

Yesterday evening I learned from his nephew that Peter Sinclair had died after spending some weeks in intensive care battling Covid19. The tide of emails and tweets today, as people heard this sad news, is testament to the overwhelming affection and respect so many feel for him.

My memories are typical of those people are emailing. I pitched up at Brasenose College, Oxford to read PPE at the age of 17, completely out of my depth socially and intellectually, although pretty sure I was going to become a philosopher and sit in a Parisian cafe all day reading and writing. Peter’s absolute vocation for teaching, his brilliance, his kindness, soon turned me into an economist. He’d sent pre-reading before we turned up – Roy Harrod’s biography of Keynes for instance (this pre-dated the publication of the Skidelsky books). In the first term all his students were driven in batches of four for afternoon tea at the Feathers Hotel in Woodstock. One of our group came from Kenya and Peter tried a bit of conversation in Swahili – my first experience with his knowledge of at least one phrase in every language he’d ever encountered.

In tutorials with Peter, even poor essays were kindly treated – one learned to interpret comments such as, “That’s very, very – very – interesting,” as signalling a terrible error. He was a brilliant teacher. His explanation of different social welfare functions is still vivid in my mind. He eviscerated the inefficiencies of the CAP by pointing out that at the time the EEC butter mountain weighed more than the population of Austria. He responded to any sign of mild student interest in anything by sending one off with additional readings, perfectly pitched, and embracing everything from classics to the latest books and papers. He scheduled one-to-one tutorials over breakfast in the cafe in Oxford market if one was very interested. He knew everything: whenever I’ve discussed any subject with him over the years, he was able to cite the entire literature and send me scurrying off to catch up on all the references. In meetings, he would listen carefully to the discussion then chip in with some deep and important point.

Unsurprisingly, his joy in teaching meant he has taught what seems like half the UK economics profession and a fair proportion of economists elsewhere in the world. This continued through his years as a Professor at Birmingham University and at the Bank of England’s Centre for Central Banking Studies. He was a driving force in the Royal Economic Society’s educational initiatives including the easter school for PhD students. Just before his illness and death he was writing chapters for a new online Office for National Statistics text on economic statistics – Joe Grice, who has known Peter for 50 years since his doctoral days at Nuffield, will shepherd those now.

We celebrated Peter’s formal retirement with a dinner in 2012 hosted by the then CEO of Standard Chartered, Peter Sands, with dozens of economists attending. There will be crowds at his memorial service, when crowds are allowed by this cruel disease to gather again.

For all his decisive influence on my intellectual formation – not just turning me into an economist but shaping my values and world view – I will always remember Peter’s kindness and warmth. It is a patient and loving person who puts up with a long-ago pupil and her young children dropping in for lunch at the Bank of England canteen. He was always genuinely delighted to see people.

Peter was devastated by the death of his first wife, Shelagh Heffernan, after her long illness. We were all overjoyed when he later found such happiness marrying Jayne Ivimey. My heart goes out to Jayne and all Peter’s family.

Peter with former pupil Sir Dave Ramsden in November 2012

Peter with former pupil Sir Dave Ramsden in November 2012


Peter at the University of Birmingham a few weeks ago

39 thoughts on “Peter Sinclair

  1. A wonderful man and teacher. Thank you Diane for the precious memories. Peter taught a course for us in South Africa, and I remember him learning phrases from the many languages in the class. A true gentleman. A great man.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Your remark about his conversing in Swahili reminds me of a lecture I was observing when, on the rather late arrival of two students, he bowed deeply to them, and greeted them warmly in Chinese. I know no-one else who could have done this with such style. He will certainly be greatly missed.

  3. Very nice words Diane. There are sure to be many more. Peter touched so many people in so many good ways.

  4. Such a kind, curious, generous and knowledgable man. Tim Hartford captures him perfectly in the phrase: “”beaming and nodding and encouraging, as though everything was going brilliantly”. That was Peter through-and-through.

  5. Thanks Diane, my main memory of Peter is hosting me to give a seminar in some rather fusty lecture room massively enlivened by his presence and sheer good nature – the memory lives on although it must have been a long time ago. What a loss but what a man.

  6. Many thanks Diane for the writing. I was very sad and cried hearing the news. That answered why Peter didn’t reply my emails. He was my supervisor during my PhD at Birmingham. He always encouraged me, understand my lack of knowledge and English. Because of his support I could finish my study well. Many thanks Prof Sinclair, may God enlighten your path to Heaven as you always enlighten your students (Wira).

  7. Thank you for this lovely tribute Diane. Peter has been such a vital part of the Heffernan family and you capture all his brilliance, warmth, and generosity. I thought nothing would stop that indomitable spirit.

  8. Thanks for your lovely memories of peter. I will show this to Jayne Ivimey tomorrow as thay all mean so much x
    Murray Davies (Stepson)

    • Good to find this piece. I only knew Peter as part of Jayne and Murray’s family, and am very moved by what has been written about him here and elsewhere. Such an inspiring person. He will be deeply missed.

  9. You have described Peter perfectly. He was interested in everyone and everything and it is a privilege to have known him

  10. You have described Peter perfectly. He was interested in everyone and everything and it is a privilege to have known him

  11. So sad to hear about Peter. Here in New York we constantly hear the wails of ambulance sirens taking the stricken to the hospital. Peter’ death touched me deeply.
    I always felt very close to him. He was one of the (then young) economists who welcomed me to Oxford when I arrived in 1976, with his good-natured ebullience, his inquisitive mind, and unquenchable curiosity. Especially with Brasenose being so near All Souls, we saw much of each other. He was also a breath of fresh air in macroeconomics and monetary theory–a bulwark against the new classical economics that was raging at the time. I just reread one of his early articles about unemployment in the early 80’s. So sensible. And reflecting his humanity. And based on such deep theoretical understandings–the “imperfections” in the economy (including those associated with information) that made the new classical model (and its latter-day descendants in DSGE models) so irrelevant, and policies based on those models so dangerous. His Oxford Review of Economic Policy article could have well been written today–its messages are just as relevant.
    I last saw Peter at another sad event, the memorial service for Jim Mirrlees. I’m glad we had a chance to talk for as long as we did then.

    • One of the many ‘extras’ he got me to read was Malinvaud’s Theory of Unemployment Reconsidered. And he was big on the 2nd Best theorem too…

  12. I was hugely out of my depth as a PPE undergraduate at Brasenose in the early eighties. Peter Sinclair was consistently supportive and kind and I thought him far too nice a man to be an Oxford don. So pleased to learn that he moved on to Birmingham. An honour to have known him briefly. RIP.

  13. We arrived as undergraduates at Brasenose in the same term that Peter started as a Tutorial Fellow in Economics, 50 years ago. Peter was only 5 years older than us. The fact that he had started undergraduate life as a classicist made this an even more remarkable achievement.
    He was joined in that first term by Vernon Bogdanor for Politics and by Michael Woods for Philosophy. Later John Foster taught us Moral Philosophy. They were a remarkable set of teaching fellows and as far as I know they had not a doctorate between them. Vernon, I remember was the toughest. I had come from a science background and essay writing was not my usual medium. In fact, today I might have been classified as dyslexic. But he instilled in me a love of the subject and my favourite pastime today is to read long historical tomes. I remember asking Vernon when he was Professor of Government whether he still did undergraduate tutorials and he told me that he not only did but that he found it most refreshing as undergraduates had a much broader interest than post-graduates and on average were brighter than post-graduates.
    Michael Woods could hardly have been employed in a University today. As far as I know he published only one monograph in his career, but he was a wonderful teacher and much loved in spite of his nervous shakes with his newer pupils – hence his nick name “Shakey”. Michael knew that most of us were not philosophers and he taught us how to write a philosophy essay. Sadly Michael died young but his memory is carried on through travel scholarships for Brasenose undergraduates funded by subscription.
    Peter was remarkable. He worked 70 hours a week preparing his tutorial work. He smoked like a chimney and clearly did not have time to exercise. He was affectionately nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon. Tutorials were fun and stretched the mind. My enduring memory was a tutorial on financial arbitrage and the three types of trader – arbitrageurs, hedgers and speculators. I cannot remember the source but it was made clear that markets needed all three in order to reach an equilibrium. Today’s financial regulators could do well to remember this. Another area where Peter excelled was in Monetary Economics. He and Dick Smethurst gave a weekly seminar on the subject at BNC. Their discussion of the yield curve was seminal. He also was the senior member of the Addington Dining Club which hosted political speakers.
    Peter remained a friend of mine and my wife for the rest of his life as he did for so many of his ex-pupils. He and his first wife, Shelagh Heffernan, invited us to dinner in his Barbican flat and later by himself when he was widowed. My wife remembers him serving parsnips as a starter buttered, he told us, with “Danish butter”. They were delicious. He regularly turned up at a financial seminar which friends and I organised in the City and would always have something useful to say. He and Shelagh visited Trier when I was in Luxembourg and he later came out for a seminar I had organised traveling on to Trier, alone, to remember his last trip with Shelagh.
    More recently Peter organised groups to march for the Remain cause. Our group included Stephen Dorrell a former Secretary of State for Health and Chris Lowe the BBC presenter and journalist. Peter also wrote a little piece “10 Reasons to Vote Leave” which were somewhat tongue-in-cheek not to say sarcastic. Peter was so mild and amiable that he occasionally caught one off guard with the odd rather caustic remark on someone he thought unworthy.
    Peter was a regular attender at BNC Alumni events often with Jayne Ivimey, the artist and his second wife who was with him to the end. We hope she will remain in touch and carry on the friendship.
    David Clark April 2020

    • Thankyou for sharing this David. I too benefited from the same group of amazing teachers, a bit later. Hope you’re keeping well. Dx

    • Can anyone tell me where I can find his piece “10 reasons to vote leave”? I was so saddened to hear of the death of such a wonderfully kind, clever and all-round lovely man, and would love to read this article which I have heard reference to and I imagine would make me smile with fond memories.
      Sally Daulton (BNC PPE 1981-84)

  14. Diane,
    That was a beautiful tribute. I was another who cried on hearing the news yesterday. Though I only really knew Peter from his time at the Bank — both when he ran the CCBS and more recently as a consultant and visitor in my division — I feel that my life has been better as a result. As the main organiser of seminars there, I could always rely on Peter to ask the challenging questions that got both the presenter and their audience thinking hard about what really matters. I shall miss him.

  15. Thank you, Diane. Peter was my cousin, on the Niven side. We are all heartbroken at his passing. I am particularly moved by your photo at the restaurant from a few weeks ago. I have forwarded this onto the wider family (in Scotland and London).
    When I was a young, shy student at St Hilda’s, Peter was teaching at Brasenose and used to take me for lunch at top table there, and he would poke gentle, whispered fun at the terribly old professors falling asleep into their soup or goggling at the young unknown woman daring to take a place at their table. It was always very funny.
    Later, when I was diagnosed at 34 with breast cancer, with a young baby to care for, Peter sent me the loveliest letter about the strength of the Niven women, to encourage me through chemo, radio, surgery etc. I found it so comforting, I slept with it under my pillow for the next six months.
    More recently, after we moved to Leicester, we used to meet up with Peter in restaurants between Leicester and Birmingham. They were such lovely evenings. We were due to meet again some time this spring, before this whole awful situation took hold.
    Thank you for your tribute. It’s lovely to hear such personal thoughts and memories from someone who clearly loved Peter as much as we did.

    • Dear Kirsty, thank you. It’s amazing to discover how many people loved Peter; h clearly touched so positively the lives of everyone from Nobel Prize winners to the newest undergraduate. Dx

  16. Thank you Diane; you so beautifully capture the essence if Peter’s extreme kindness and humanity. I am first cousin to Shelagh and her siblings. I cried throughout your article as it brought back such vivid memories of one wonderful day with Peter.

    I was staying with he and Shelagh enroute to Paris several years ago. Over dinner in the apartment, Peter asked me what I’d like to see while in London. I’d seen all the usual sites on a previous trip so said I didn’t want to visit any musty cathedrals! We left it at that and carried on with other conversation.

    The next morning over breakfast, Peter suggested that he’d thought we might might take a transit bus through London listening to all the different accents and end up at the oldest pub in London for lunch. Right up my alley! Peter was endlessly attentive and fascinating and humorous, and in retrospect, I’ve rarely felt as special in my life as he made me feel by showing me a London I’m sure few have ever witnessed through Peter’s intelligent eyes. I’ll never forget him.

  17. Very sad to learn my favourite Professor Peter Sinclair has passed away due to Covid19. His lectures were that engaging he did not use a PowerPoint and kept our attention using unorthodox techniques such as occasional exclamations while taking us on a virtual tour of the economies of the world. I never got to tell him that I snuck in a friend from another department to sit on the front row to be inspired. He taught a generation including David Cameron PM how to be balanced between wealth creation and social compassion.
    Peter was a rare breed, exceptionally well informed, personable and supportive of everyone he met. Only a few months ago he wrote a supporting reference for Tina . It’s a sad day for the world of economics.

  18. Peter taught me Economics at Brasenose from 1985-88. It goes without saying what a generous and supportive tutor he was.

    A personal memory that sums him up for me concerns when our finals results came out. I was out doing a summer job when Peter rang with details of my results. My long-since-gone mum jotted own the conversation on the back of a bank paying-in slip: lots of betas, the very odd alpha and interspersed with direct quotes from Peter – “super”, “brilliant”, “great” and so on. I’ve carried it in my wallet ever since.

    He truly was the ultimate tutor, and man, and this was such sad news. Condolences to all his family and friends.

  19. Thanks for your tribute Diane – everything you write about Peter sounds so familiar from my own experience of him as his student, TA and RA (MPhil 1992-94 at BNC and teaching for him at BNC and Birmingham). I remember him as engaging, entertaining, vivacious and above all incredibly kind and generous, going the extra mile to help me (like many others) take the next steps beyond university. I hadn’t seen him for over a decade, but was shocked and saddened to hear the news. I hope his friends and family can find a bit of comfort in their grief from reading how loved and admired he was by so many people who were fortunate enough to cross his path.

  20. Hi Diane, have just read your moving tribute to Peter. I was one of the PPE 1986 intake, year after a certain David Cameron, who I actually interviewed with the previous year but I then took a gap year as a voluntary teacher in Zimbabwe. I have written an In Memoriam of Peter, who was without doubt the greatest influence in my eventual metamorphosis into a development economist, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years including a 12 year stint as an Economic Advisor/ Senior Economic Advisor at DfID. Happy to share my memories of Peter from that period with you if you want to find me on e.g. LinkedIn (try Alan Harding + development economics + DfID), kind regards, Alan

  21. Hi Diane, as you know I’m no economist so was never one of his pupils, but he was still a popular figure among the undergraduates of my era (1981-84), not least with my good friend Richard whose second-year room adjoined Peter’s on staircase XII and who benefitted from Peter’s forebearance in matters such as playing his music outside the stipulated hours. It was a great pleasure that in late years he was so often to be seen in the ONS offices in London, and he would always say hello even though as I say I was not among his pupils, and of course one saw him at BNC events. But perhaps my main memory of his polished compering – if that is right word – of the lecture you gave at the Said Business School a few years ago now.

  22. Thank you, Diane, for that lovely article and also for these comments it has inspired.

    Like others, my main memory of Peter Sinclair is how generous and encouraging he was in teaching. I was only taught by him on one course: International Economics, on the Economics M. Phil, and we visited his rooms in Brasenose a few times. I have often told the story of his going through some mathematical model, writing down various terms and then turning to his group of students and asking:

    Peter: “..and so the exchange rate goes…?”

    (Long pause)

    Student (hesitantly): “Down?”

    Peter (nodding enthusiastically): “Nearly! Nearly! Up!”

    • Thank you for this John – it made me laugh. I can absolutely hear him saying that. He never made one feel stupid, even if it was justified….

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