Centre for Intellectual History

Memorial address by Laurence Lerner

I got to know John well in a way typical of Sussex as it once was: we taught together on a history-literature topic. I taught together with what often seems to me almost every historian at Sussex, and my experience with John was both the most successful and one of the least successful. Least, because we agreed so much; I don't remember any really fierce arguments or ideological clashes between us, and no doubt this disappointed some of our students. Most, of course, because I learned so much from him: he left me convinced that I now didn't need to read Adam Smith or Jeremy Bentham, since I had heard his wonderfully lucid and witty exposition of their thought. Most of what either of us said could have been said by the other - most but not all. What John was hesitant in talking about was the Ode to the West Wind or Kubla Khan - nice and short; whereas my ignorance covered lots of very long books which John had always read. Indeed, when he was studying Victorian historians, he liked to think of himself as the Stakhanovite among his colleagues - if you measured productivity by the number of pages read. I remember explaining to the students that I had views on what the English felt in the early 19th C, and John knew what they thought, but that we might be a little unreliable on what actually happened (though of course we were more reliable than the students were).

You get to know your colleagues in several ways - in conversation, through joint teaching (a more formal kind of conversation) and by listening to them lecture. I had the pleasure of hearing John lecture twice: both were memorable and taught me a lot, and the two experiences have now run together in my mind. One was his inaugural lecture as Professor of Intellectual History, a model of what an inaugural should be, which explained what he believed intellectual history was and discussed what it should be called. The English faculty at Cambridge used to offer, when John and I were undergraduates, courses in Life Literature and Thought: since they were taught by literary scholars they were really courses in literature, with a few genuflexions towards the background that really belonged to social historians (who dealt with Life) and historians of ideas (who dealt with Thought). John explained that this background was his foreground: in the nicest possible way, he was turning the tables on us, pointing out that what mattered less to us actually mattered more to him.

The other formal lecture I heard John give was on Gibbon (no doubt marking his bicentenary) and of this I remember only one thing, which I shall never forget: that after reading a magnificent bit of sonorous Gibbonian prose to show how splendidly Gibbon could write, he confessed that he had just written it himself, I felt ashamed that I had never tried to write a Keats Ode.

In a way, there is no need for me to remember and recite episodes from John's life, since he has done it so well himself. Towards the end he wrote, and his friends printed, a fascinating and witty autobiography, which contains one of the best accounts of post-war Britain I have ever read. I remember the British Restaurants with affection, providing (as they were meant to) cheap and wholesome lunches, but the one in Exeter must have been well below standard. It can be forgiven, however, because of the delectable prose it drew from the reminiscing John, claiming he was offered 'chips fried in oil clearly recycled after previous use for some industrial purpose - drained perhaps from the sumps of written off Spitfires, making the cannibalisation process reciprocal.'

John's autobiography is not only entertaining, it also contains a serious and disturbing account of the academic controversy he was inadvertently involved in at the end of his career, and which I discussed with him while it was on. It is such an interesting and such a disturbing story, that I make no apology for briefly telling it here, to an academic audience. A wealthy German industrialist endowed a chair of European thought at Oxford and John was its first and (as it turned out) its last occupant. The grandfather of the donor had been a supporter and financer of the Nazi government, and when this fact was discovered by the press they cast accuracy to the winds and denounced Oxford, Balliol College (which had given him a fellowship) and sometimes John himself for accepting what they called 'Nazi Gold'. The German donor was so upset by the denunciations that he withdrew his support, but since John had already been appointed, Oxford University found the money to continue the chair - at least during John's tenure: when he retired, the chair was abolished. Our splendid English free press does not come well out of this story, but Oxford University, said to be the home of reaction and lost causes, does - as in my view does John, who naturally realised that the remit of a chair in European Thought could include discussion of the question of its setting up. The full story has been told by John himself - and will perhaps one day be the subject of a doctoral thesis in European thought which John, alas, will not be alive to read. His own account of the episode contains one sentence which I would like to end on. The Jewish Chronicle asked him if he would have accepted the chair if he had known the source of its funding, but did not print John's very characteristic reply: 'Well, you have to remember that I am a coward, and being a coward probably not. But if I had not been one, I think I would.'

I remember, as many of you do, John Burrow as a brilliant scholar, a devoted family man, a good friend, and a man brave enough to lay claim to cowardice.

Laurence Lerner