Centre for Intellectual History

Memorial address by Norman Vance

Like Laurence Lerner, I taught an interdisciplinary School course with John. It was on 'Faith, Doubt and Science in Victorian Literature', and thanks to John it was great fun. We once had an essay from a student who had been reading about Mr Pooter in Diary of a Nobody before writing about Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean. With admirable consistency the novel was attributed to that unknown writer Walter Pooter. I don't think either of us was ever able to take Pater entirely seriously after that. John loved many of the texts we covered, and his enthusiasm was infectious. I gradually realised that one of the reasons he wrote so well was that he had a very good eye and ear for good writing, whether it was Darwin on there being grandeur in the evolutionary view of life, or Frazer in The Golden Bough on the death and renewal of religions in the Alban Hills above Rome.

John was also a very good listener: he seldom took notes but when a student or a colleague had introduced a topic or presented an argument he could go straight to the heart of it, pick out what mattered and very efficiently carry forward the discussion.

He could also be an efficient administrator, though he would have cheerfully denied it. He endured rather than enjoyed being Director of Graduate Studies, or DoGS, in Arts and Social Studies. I was his Deputy, the Deputy DoGS. The job involved trudging over to an office in Arts D which he always referred to as the dark tower, seeing himself as Browning's 'Childe Roland' ('Childe Roland to the dark tower came'). He had succeeded a very active, hands-on, Director, but John had a different, more relaxed style. This was a bit alarming at first but after a bit I realised that this could work just as well and ensured that there was time for the really important and difficult problems.

The efficient use of time could be a bit unnerving. I was once asked to respond to a conference paper John was giving in Bristol. Each paper-giver had been asked to send a copy to the respondent well in advance, but John didn't have time to do so. He was in Oxford by this time so he suggested we should meet at Reading station and travel to Bristol together. To the bemusement of some of the other passengers on the very crowded train he then talked me through a trial version of the still-unwritten paper he was going to deliver the following day. Somehow or other the adrenalin rush he was depending on kicked in overnight, and the paper as delivered was polished, erudite and witty, as it always was.

A splendid historian, a splendidly humane and entertaining writer and teacher and a profoundly cultivated man, John was also a generous and very supportive colleague and friend. I am very glad I knew him.

Norman Vance