Centre for Intellectual History

Memorial address by Donald Winch

John was one of those rare creatures who claimed to remember the sights and sounds of being born.  He certainly had an acute sense of the shapes, styles, and smells of the natural and built environments in which he found himself.  With this came a strong sense of identification with places that were especially congenial to him.  Having spent his first two decades in Devon and Cornwall, he was proud to think of himself as a West Country man.   During the next decade and more he became a Cambridge man who tacked on to that a few more years living deeper still in East Anglia at Norwich.  Coming from the West, he couldn't get used to the sun setting over land rather than the sea.  Several decades later, as many of us here remember with some regret, John decided to spend the last five years of his career in a university located somewhere in the South-West Midlands.  But having noticed these rival claims on John's allegiances and affections, it is far more than local patriotism that leads me to assert that he was one of ours -- a Sussex man. 

John spent 26 years at this university, raised his family in Brighton and Hove, and laid the foundation for the international reputation he enjoys as intellectual historian and historiographer extraordinary while here.  The congregation today testifies to the range of friendships he formed.  From a Sussex point of view the gathering would be nearer completion if that prince of evolutionary biologists, John Maynard Smith, was still with us.  The two Johns had the West Country and Charles Darwin in common; and much else besides.  They enjoyed what other Sussex teachers of that generation enjoyed, what John described as 'the absence of disciplinary tribalism'.  There can be no question that it was this feature of Sussex life that allowed John and the branch of history of which he was master to put down roots and thrive here.  Life became more difficult for him when disciplinary tribalism, not least within history, reasserted itself.

In addition to Sussex friends and colleagues, John loved the seaside and Downland walks, churches, and pubs.  It follows from the last of these that he was partial to Harvey's best bitter.  Over the years we consumed our share of that excellent brew over lunches taken on the steps of the Gardner Centre.  I'm glad too that I lugged what seemed like a firkin of the stuff to Lords cricket ground last August for what proved to be John's final taste of it.  (It couldn't have been a firkin, of course, because that is 9 imperial gallons: even in our prime we couldn't consume that much.  The combination of old age and weight just made it seem like a quarter of a barrel.)

It was in Sussex too that John-- with a bit more of the good fortune that seemed to desert him at key stages of his life -- would like to have spent his final years.  The years that should have been available to him have been all-too rapidly and cruelly foreshortened.  When thinking about what to say today I've had difficulty in finding the right tense: John surely is not was.  I kept thinking that if this was an honorary degree ceremony, as it might well have been, we could all say the things we now want to say, but do so in a mood of celebration rather than sadness and loss.  I hope that some of the photos and other memorabilia downstairs will revive happier memories.  We will also use the internet, a method of communication that John treated as a malevolent force, to put some of his private writings and gift for pastiche on the Centre for Intellectual History's website.

In jest John used to complain that in coming to Sussex in 1968 he entered a world -- as the Reverend Robert Malthus once put it -- that was 'already possessed'.  He would indicate that I was one of the possessors and add some irrelevant observation about me having been a boxer as a schoolboy to give the impression that he had been cowed or bullied.  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  I'll admit, however, that after I'd read the  account of his childhood in the wonderful autobiographical memoir we were able to get printed just before he died, I recognized that I was just the kind of 'street boy' his more genteel upbringing was designed to protect him from.  On the other hand, as a form of revenge perhaps, I was to learn to my cost many years later that John was one of those people from whom one should be wary of buying a second-hand car. Along with Dolly, a new bride at the time, I did just that in Canberra, of all places, making even short car trips into the outback far more of an adventure than was absolutely necessary.  The recompense for this was to be on the list of recipients for John's round-robin letters, in one of which he described Australian cassowaries as looking like nosy Bertrand Russells poking their heads through the windows of cars.

In 1967 I had no idea what sort of man Mr Burrow was when I wrote to him to express my admiration for his first book onEvolution and Society and to invite him to give a lecture in the contextual course I convened, Concepts, Methods and Values in the Social Sciences, CMV for short.  The book exemplified the anti-Whig or non-teleological approach to the history of the social sciences that I was trying to follow myself.  In brief, it treated the history of these troublesome disciplines as having had a historically and intellectually interesting past rather than one that was a feeble anticipation of what contemporary social scientists currently wanted to believe about themselves.  After his second visit in the following year I popped the question: if I could arrange it, would he accept what was probably the first post created at Sussex solely to meet the needs of a contextual course rather than a major subject?  The rest, as they say, is history, though it was a history that still had to be made.

Seducing John from the University of East Anglia, with the support of Barry Supple as PVC, was the best thing I ever did as Dean of the School of Social Sciences.  On reflection, bearing in mind that in those heady days of student revolt when much of one's time was spent on negative or defensive things, like preventing the house from being burnt down, I sometimes felt that it was the onlygood thing, the only constructive thing I did.  John's eager acceptance of the offer set on foot a string of lasting consequences for him and for us.  It gave a boost to the Intellectual History degree that had been started by Michael Moran, James Shiel, and Peter Burke; and in 1981 it allowed John to become the first professor of that branch of history and to help give it that Sussex complexion outsiders have noticed.  He moved from SOC to ENGAM in the 1970s, but his teaching remained heavily concentrated on contextual courses, including MEM, Modern European Mind, in EURO.  Visitors will have to forgive resort to all this outmoded shorthand about Sussex entities that became obsolete a couple of managerial regimes ago.  Natives and ex-natives will know what I'm talking about, and it underlines just how closely John's career was connected with what was peculiar to Sussex in those days.

To begin with, although we were strict contemporaries and fellow grammar-school products, it wasn't obvious what a Devon-bred Cambridge historian and a South London-born economist educated at the London School of Economics, with Ivy League trimmings supplied by Princeton, had in common.  There was a shared interest in the Scottish Enlightenment which involved, quite by chance, one of John's Cambridge tutors, Duncan Forbes, a figure I knew only in print.  Again, purely by chance, John's external examiner for his PhD, Michael Oakeshott, had been one of the few teachers at LSE whose lectures I had attended faithfully; they dealt with the history of political thought, another field in which John and I later cooperated.  It also proved true that both of us, though lacking any proper education as scientists or philosophers, were much taken by the natural sciences and by what modern philosophers had to say about their modes of inquiry and explanation. 

Later we discovered -- partly as a result of a pair of centenary lectures we gave here in 1976 - that the friendship that existed between our respective eighteenth-century protagonists, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon, was matched in our own alliance.  One of the issues on which these two sceptics found common cause was their use of the idea of unintended consequences to express the ironies and moral ambivalences that one encounters when seeking causal explanations for human behaviour in complex social and historical settings.  John and I were both taken by the possibilities here, and by the shared Mandevillian basis of what Smith and Gibbon were doing.

But it was the nineteenth rather than the eighteenth century that was to be the site of our most ambitious collaborative venture; and it required the organising abilities of an energetic (John often thought far too energetic) young man called Stefan Collini to keep his older colleagues moving forward to the conclusion that becameThat Noble Science of Politics in 1983.  With some justification, John liked to think of himself as an idler, a flaneur, a boulevardiereven.  He was under the erroneous impression that, having finished a big book of his own a couple of years before, he had earned a rest.  That book was A Liberal Descent, his highly original, stylish, and prize-winning study of the leading mid-Victorian historians on the English past.  Once he had been roused from idleness, however, and with some regular prodding, That Noble Science gave John an opportunity, among other things, to write on Walter Bagehot, another figure whose strength lay in exploiting the ironies created by the difference between appearance and reality. 

John was the last person to shout about his status as a pioneer.  Nor did he follow the example of his own mentor at Cambridge, Jack Plumb, in being assiduous in acquiring disciples.  But John broke new ground in almost everything he wrote.  Any brief he tackled was transformed into something nobody else could have done in quite that way. 

It was not a case of leaving the best to last, but the works that John completed in the final decade of his life show just how much mature reflection had gone on alongside a life-time of curiosity-driven reading.  His book on The Crisis of Reason published in 2000, a study of European scientific thinking and cultural and artistic movements from the 1848 revolutions to the outbreak of the First World War, represented the fulfilment of interests that probably had their origin in the A-level course he took in German in the mid-1950s.  For his last major work, A History of Histories,he chose the largest of canvases to display his knowledge of the diverse ways in which historians have approached their task in the period that stretches from Herodotus and Thucydides to the twentieth century. 

In a mixture of self-defence and self-interest, John used to joke that excellence as a historian was strongly correlated with being short and fat.  As an example of what philosophers of science call an enumerative generalisation, this statement was true of two of his heroes, Gibbon and Macaulay, and one to whom he was greatly indebted, Jack Plumb.  John wasn't always fat, but he was always an excellent natural historian who just got better and better. 

In conclusion, from among the many tributes that have and will be paid to John, let me cite just one.  It is by Julia Stapleton, one of our postgraduates who taught here before making her career in Durham.  'Reading John's autobiography', she wrote, 'is just sheer delight. The integration of his personal and professional history from day one is amazing.  I am immensely grateful for the book, not least for the light it sheds on the history of intellectual history in Britain, something that clearly was in danger of not happening without John.'  I'd now have to add that it is still in danger of not happening here at Sussex for reasons that John would have understood only too well.

The motto of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the woman who re-founded Christ's College, John's college in Cambridge, was 'Souvent me souvient' -- 'often I remember'.  There is no risk of that not being true of John's friends.  We shall be recalling and retailing stories about him and reading his books until it is our own time to go.

Donald Winch