Obituary – Peter Ambrose
Peter Ambrose, a passionate, committed and radical academic who worked at the University of Sussex for 33 years, has died aged 79.
Born in London in 1933, he left school at 16 and worked for the National Bank of New Zealand for a decade. That job was interrupted for two years in the early 1950s by National Service; Peter flew operationally with Coastal Command.
His experiences in London both as a child and then of the austerity of the early post-war years were to provide the raison d'être for his subsequent university career. His former colleague, Peter Dickens, extends the argument, adding that “even Peter's rather suspect support for Millwall Football Club can be traced to his origins in south east London”.
Peter was a late arrival in the academic world. ‘A levels’ in 1960 were followed by degrees at Kings College London and McGill University where he was a Commonwealth Scholar. He was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Geography in the School of Social Sciences at Sussex in 1965.
A decade later he transferred to the School of Cultural and Community Studies (CCS) and the Urban Studies Subject Group. He relished the possibilities and freedoms provided by the interdisciplinarity of Urban Studies and CCS school courses. He was able to focus on – and subsequently never swerved from - issues of land, property, housing, finance and the resultant questions of social justice.
In 1974 his book The Quiet Revolution was published. Ostensibly an historical study of the village of Ringmer, in reality the last 20 pages provide his academic manifesto. The final two sentences reveal Peter’s passion to address social and political inequalities:
But something is terribly wrong when developers have the licence to produce villages as socially unbalanced and aesthetically insensitive as Ringmer and when, to take an extreme case, they can profit from millions of square feet of empty office space in London when countless men, women and children are homeless. So long as abuses such as these are possible, the quiet revolution is not yet complete.
Such words were inspirational for young research students across Britain seeking to abandon the then dominant quantitative approaches in subjects such as geography. But Peter’s eschewed the increasingly pervasive Marxist class analysis of cities and societies. In his view categories such as class were “analytically imprecise, socially divisive, and … [had] … outlived … [their] … political usefulness”. The statement hints at other dimensions of Peter’s radicalism.
His purpose was not simply to analyse and understand the world but to change it for the better through empowering disadvantaged people and communities while working with existing institutions and political processes. His proposals for change were always rooted in research with real people and in real places.
This commitment was increasingly realised when he retired from Sussex in 1998. Appointed a Visiting Professor of Housing Studies at the University of Brighton and taking on an important role with the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, Peter was able to work at local, national and international levels with his most recent research focusing on the multi-facetted relationship between poor housing and poor health and on the general impact of high housing costs on poverty and debt.
In 2009 Peter commented, in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek fashion, that he had ‘been trying to retire for some years now’; his passion and commitment were such that he continued to work until two days before he died.
The funeral takes place at 11.15am today (Friday 7 September) at Downs Crematorium in Brighton.