John Gardner at Home

Memories from Lizzie Barmes

Autumn 1982 (was it September, October, even perhaps November?), New College

I applied to New College for a conditional offer for law and arrived for my interview, still a few months from my 17th birthday. John was there for an interview too, but he had got into New College for languages and decided to switch to law (or is it that you already had a conditional offer for languages; I am not sure about that detail.)

I have hazy memories of my impression of you physically, but a powerful sense of you as a person and of sitting next to you talking. (Were we sitting on one of the stone ledges outside the staircases near Dr Skegg’s room?) I was in alien territory, in so many ways completely unprepared for what was to come, and yet so sincere and full of hope. What I remember is the utter seriousness with which you treated my aspirations, never for one second making me feel either any competitiveness or that there was the least preposterousness in what I was trying for. I remember others making me feel out of place, but the opposite from you. It was as if you took in my ambitions, listened and really minded what happened to me, slightly fretting (as you said at your party in March 2019) that I might not get my due because you, in a way, were in pole position to receive the one offer we thought would be made. I am sure that worry was not because you believed your utter brilliance would exclude me, perfectly appropriate as that would have been. You knew though that you had already been successful in the New College admissions process for another degree.

What I cannot get beyond is this is a 17 year old boy showing entirely other-regarding concern for someone he had just met. By that you bolstered my shaky sense of the accessibility of this world to which I wanted so very badly to belong. The happy ending for both of us – on which more soon – is that you got the conditional offer and I was encouraged to sit Oxbridge on the basis that I did no preparation, and then received an offer too.

Is there a particular quality of attention that marks out your way of living your beliefs, and that was present even then? There is no doubt that you communicated, so that I remember it 37 years later, that whatever was going on for you, whatever goals you were pursuing, however much they mattered to you, you took the hopes of other people just as seriously and felt a deep, true commitment to their flourishing.

A 17 year old boy…


27 May 2019

1983-1986 New College

I have been thinking about when we were law students together. The memories are often hazy, although some impressions and moments come through more insistently. Some things recently have taken me back to the challenges we encountered – definitely me, and I wonder whether you too. I did not then know I suffered from depression, but amidst the excitement of being free and at Oxford there was always an edge of pain and unease. My impression was that you were somehow apart, not so much from that aspect of my experience, but from some of the adolescentness of what was going on. The seriousness and quality of your work perhaps meant that you quite quickly entered into a more adult Oxford world. Still, I wonder how much I missed of what was happening for you.

I remember you telling me about your Constitutional Law tutorials with Chris McCrudden, and realizing that you were having actual scholarly exchanges with him, in which he respected and wanted to hear your views. Goodness knows what was happening at mine (at Wadham I think). I suspect I would have given our current politicians a run for their money in the confusion stakes.

What a joy and compliment it was to me that Niki made us tutorial partners the following year. I cannot tell you what it meant to me, and still does, that we worked together so harmoniously and productively. I cherish the special, indelible bonds we created in those hours with our teachers – Teddy Burns, Jonathan Glover and Niki. The times with Niki are in some ways merged with all the ways that she guided and inspired us through our second and third years – and ever since. Gosh how lucky we are in having her as our tutor and mentor.

I do not know if you know that you were critical to me getting through the first year. I somewhat lost the plot in the first term, overwhelmed by being at Oxford and doing too little work. Anne Smart luckily took the time to tell me I was coming unstuck and I worked my head off from Christmas until Mods. Do you remember how you bolstered my confidence in the run up and took me to my desk in the Examination Halls? You wanted to make sure that I was there and settled, and only went to find your place when you were satisfied that I was sorted. That is a treasured act of kindness, as it is that you were so thrilled that I did alright in the end.

I have thought of other things, like what you used to wear in those days. Do you remember a pale yellow scarf? I cannot imagine you would go for it now. But there is no doubt you had a whole aesthetic going on.

Toasted cheese sandwiches also loom large in my memories of the early days in the New Buildings (is that what they are called?) You had a lovely friend with some interesting views, called Clare I think? (I mean no judgment; we undoubtedly had some challenging beliefs of our own, of which more later.) What I particularly remember is that you and she owned a cunning toasted sandwich maker. I spent most of the first years of my life in the UK hungry, as I could not get the hang of school or college food. I am slightly surprised not to have had my entire worldview altered by the rapturousness of those toasties.

That is not the only time you rescued me. I recollect a tutorial in either land or trusts with Teddy Burns in his beautiful house in North Oxford. For some reason he could not come to college. I have a feeling that maybe his wife was ill and cannot bear the echoes of what you and Jenny are going through…

It was perhaps nearing the end of term and I was overtired, probably having burned the candle at both ends. In my recollection we were in a huge, light filled, pale yellow room (maybe your scarf influencing me there?), with an incredibly efficient fire and squashy armchairs. It was your week to read your essay and I could rely on having little to do. Somehow you navigated me going quietly (I assume) off to sleep in my snuggly chair. I now find it quite relaxing when my students have a snooze, but it was maybe not that easy for you to keep our tutorial show on the road that day?

The cosy atmosphere in Jonathan Glover’s room in Longwall is another strong recollection. I have talked to you about this a few times and will always wonder if our conversations are the source of my preoccupation with the relationship between empiricism and theory. We had a long running debate about altruism and the human condition that used the question of how we should react if we walked by someone drowning in a manhole (why?) You were vociferous that there was no duty to intervene, which you backed up with assertions that you would not intervene and would feel entirely righteous in refusing help. Yet I KNEW (see the above and my last note) that you would be at the head of the queue of rescuers and that knowledge seemed to me to cast doubt on your normative reasoning. I still worry away (somewhat fruitlessly) at whether that kind of ‘is’ has any purchase on normative argumentation of that kind.

Dearest John. I am nearing Cambridge and want to get this to you. I will carry on another time. There is lots more to say.

You and Jenny, and the family, are constantly in my thoughts.


8 June 2019