Centre for Intellectual History

Memorial address by Stefan Collini

We are here today to celebrate the Sussex John Burrow, and in my case that means going back to the years between 1974 and 1986 when he and I were colleagues in the Intellectual History group.

Subject-Groups in those days enjoyed a good deal of autonomy about their internal arrangements, and our collective taste in administrative matters ran towards cheerful minimalism. These groups were supposed to have regular meetings whose momentous doings were recorded in regular minutes, to be scrutinised by higher powers. We didn't much care for having meetings; our favoured venue for transacting business was the steps of the Gardner Bar on Tuesday lunchtimes. Pints of Harveys' bitter were what, in the argot of the day, would have been called their material base. But we quickly twigged that the fact of not having any meetings was no impediment to the production of impressive-looking minutes. John and I had good sport in writing these, creating ghostly entities such as 'proposals' which were 'carried unanimously' after 'extensive discussion'. It delighted John to think that insinuating these works of fiction into the archives of Sussex House might one day be the means of taking revenge on those hard-faced administrative historians who were prone to lord it over mere intellectual historians because the latter could not base their conclusions on 'reliable archival records'.

In those days he and I often taught seminars jointly, an experience from which, as you can imagine, I derived a good part of my education. John could be a brilliant teacher: he only required that the students be willing and curious, however ignorant initially - this was perhaps one reason why he later so much enjoyed his teaching in the USA at Berkeley and Williams. What he hated was that strand of sullen resentment which, alas, when couched in the idiom of fashionable radicalism, was not unknown among Sussex students in the 1970s. But as long as the students were disposed to be interested, John had several natural gifts as a teacher - that extraordinary quickness of mind, that effortless finding of an apt simile or metaphor with which to illuminate otherwise opaque ideas, that quite exceptional cultural range. He also had human qualities to which, if disenchantment hadn't set in prematurely, students responded, including an utter lack of pomposity or any standing upon status, and an infectious vitality. Perhaps his command of the procedures and instruments of pedagogy was not always quite up to the highest QAA standards, but those students who were really listening - listening by the students was, in practice, the dominant mode in John's seminars - those students got an incomparably rich guided tour through the relevant books and ideas.

Curiously, for such a naturally eloquent speaker, he was not always so successful as a lecturer. In a class or tutorial he could respond to contributions by students in ways that deftly helped them out of their ignorance or confusion, but he didn't always manage to work any such implicitly dialogic element into his lectures and the students could become restive. Although it doesn't deserve to be called a paradox, it may be mildly surprising that someone who was so unstoppably a performer in conversational settings, and visibly enjoyed being so, was not more of a success on the podium. A certain physical modesty or reticence may have played a part, as may his use of a fully-written script that was not always immediately easy for the audience to follow - or, I might add, easy even for him to decipher.

John enjoyed the raffish charm of Brighton, and he loved the Sussex countryside, but I am afraid it has to be said that in his later years here he did not exactly love the University of Sussex. The treatment of the intellectual historians during these years by the History Subject Group and by the higher administration did not encourage warm feelings, but there can be no doubt that, whatever his ambivalent emotions about the place, the years of his prime were spent at Sussex. This seems to me especially true of the 1970s and early 1980s, when his personal star was rising, his young children were intensely rewarding, and the institutional setting was stimulating and congenial. It is the John of this period that I most like to remember - John at his vigorous, interested, quick, responsive, best, so full of fun and so very, very clever.

Although he was to spend the final five years of his career at Oxford, it is worth remembering that after his retirement, he and Diane intended to move back to Sussex, and perhaps only the falling-through at the last moment of a house sale deflected them. John was happy to have the honorary title of Research Professor at Sussex, happy to continue as editor-in chief of History of European Ideas, where he exercised what we might call his light-touch editorial style - at least Richard Whatmore and Brian Young might be inclined to call it that - and he always longed for the soothing balm of the Sussex Downs on a fine summer's day.

Those who only met John on social occasions might have had little inkling of the melancholy, verging on despair, that was sometimes manifested to his close friends. On the whole, it was not John's way to take up arms against his sea of troubles. His was not what you would call an activist's temperament. He instinctively preferred the pleasures of comprehensive complaint to the labour of piecemeal reform. Most of us will recall times when John reduced us to helpless laughter by turning some personal misfortune into high farce. It was, of course, a way of coping. He had his pride, though it was usually well hidden, and exercising his wit and inventiveness on circumstances and setbacks in life which were sometimes depressing or embarrassing for him to contemplate or admit was a way of mastering them - was, in Nietzschean vein, an assertion of the will to power, a search for the medium through which he could flourish and even dominate.

Minor classics in the genre that I recall include his interview with the bank manager about his billowing overdraft - 'He said I'd been very naughty and I said Oh, if only...' - or his comment on the review editor who had written wondering whether John had yet had an opportunity to decide whether he might care to review the book that had been sent him some six months earlier - 'the impudence of the fellow, he's as bad as Disraeli's tailor!' - and, one of my all-time favorites, his appearing one day in a shabby, battered overcoat that reached capaciously almost to the ground and his pre-empting any comment with the Noel Coward-ish remark: 'It almost shakes one's faith in natural selection to disover in mid-life that one's father is so much taller than oneself.'

Just occasionally, this rich capacity to convert embarrassing or distressing experience into hilarious narrative would assume full literary form, a rough draft having first been sketched and polished in conversation. Pride of place here, I think, has to go to the occasion when, walking at night from Cooksbridge station up to Donald and Dolly's house, he managed to leave the pavement, lose his footing, and end up in a water-filled ditch. In fact, he liked to say that it was a miracle that he hadn't ended his days face down in several feet of brackish Sussex ditchwater, and the verbal prompt of 'miracle' having been supplied, he proceeded to develop an elaborate conceit about how, in a more pious age, the site would have become a shrine for pilgrims, eager to celebrate the miraculous preservation of a truly holy man.

This led me, in a return of serve that always gave us both so much pleasure, to provide a piece of mock-learned Quellenkritik challenging the authenticity of the surviving evidence for 'the so-called miracle of St Jean de la Fosse'. Indeed, I suggested, further research would show that the story was a later fabrication designed to cover the disappearance of a debtor called John of Hove who later re-appeared in the guise of Jean de Bailleul, preaching to small congregations in Oxford. John loved this sort of thing - he was, along with so much else, a very talented parodist - and he fired back what purported to be an expos, of the sinister mafiosi connections of the doubtful figure known as 'Collini', who was, he pointed out, understood to have held clandestine meetings in New York with a shadowy 'third man' using the code-name 'Burrinchini', and who, in an organisation called simply 'IH', worked hand-in-glove with a group that may have had links with an Irish Republican cell since its leading members were known as Burke, Moran, and Shiel.

Although I am here deliberately speaking in personal and informal vein, I think it is impossible not at least to attempt to say something about his extraordinarily impressive achievements as a writer. What seems perhaps even clearer in retrospect than at the time, though it was certainly recognised by many good judges, was the consistent way in which John's work was marked by a combination of originality, literary distinction, and intellectual penetration. A few people may be a little surprised at my emphasising this third quality; the gracefulness of John's prose together with his geniality and amusingness in person may have misled some into under-estimating the sheer power and speed of his mind. It is also true that in his books he tended not to parade the distinctiveness and importance of his insights or to spend much time belabouring the failings of other scholars. But the originality, the distinction, and the penetration are, I think, as evident in the architecture of his books as in the local detailing. For illustration, I only need to point to what were, I believe, his three best books. Each of the three is very different from the others, but how many scholars of his generation could, in these three genres, match the achievement of: Evolution and Society, A Liberal Descent, and A History of Histories?

In the course of John's career, the standing of intellectual history in the academic culture of this country improved immeasurably. It would be a difficult and delicate task to attempt to identify John's contribution to this transformation, and I think it would anyway be right to say that he tended to attract admirers rather than followers. But there can surely be no doubt that the sheer unignorable quality of John's work and the esteem in which he was held by other kinds of historians and by specialists in cognate disciplines were in themselves very important contributions to the enhanced status of the subject.

It is difficult for me even now to try to say anything about what I loved in John as a man and a friend without risking the embarrassment of tears. And anyway, no matter how many abstract nouns I string together, the net can never capture the butterfly. Of course: warmth, wit, openness, responsiveness, loyalty, and yes, of course, one of the most consistently interesting, reflective, creative minds any of us could ever hope to encounter. But perhaps a very long close friendship is a little like a very long close marriage, in that the habits of intimacy are so ingrained, the compatibilities so deep, that in trying to provide a publicly intelligible assessment of the other person one risks failing to convey at all what made them so special, and what makes their loss a partial dissolution of one's own identity. Here I think, too, of William Empson's generous acknowledgement of T.S. Eliot - 'I do not know for certain how much of my mind he invented' - but John shaped so much more than one's mind through the delicacy of his sympathies, the generosity of his feelings, the sheer joy of his company. The nouns go on, but John, alas, does not. I loved him dearly; I miss him terribly. There is now a vacancy in our lives that no one could ever fill.

Stefan Collini