John Gardner at Home

Memories from Julie Dickson

Kidlington, 3rd May, 2019

Dear John and Jenny,

You asked people to write with memories, tales, and anecdotes and I am certainly not the person to turn such an invite down. Today I am full of fierce feeling, positive and negative, for the world, for you guys and your family, for your situation, for the whole jumbled up tumbled out beautiful wonderful terrible mess that is any of our lives. If that sounds a bit much - and it may well do! - maybe file my missive for another day! But I promise I will dwell on nothing but the positive: that's inevitable, because I will be recalling things of times spent with John, and all he means to me, and it is the stone cold truth - which is something coming from a misanthrope like me - that it is all positive. I've gone for the minutiae approach. That's what matters to me.

I remember many things from the first year of my DPhil in Oxford. Sunshine, a surprising new alignment between my self-worth and my ability to punt successfully to the Viccy Arms, new friends that were international and tons of fun, and not the posh twats a thousand BBC period adaptations had convinced me I would universally find at Oxford. ("Shadowlands" was released a few months before I made the big move South. Some of my family, on seeing it, begged me not to go!). Some scary things in that first year too - scary-wonderful right enough - trips to Joseph (Raz)'s office for supervisions ... or ... "Staircase XIII, Staircase of Doom" as I referred to it in the private confines of my own head. And something else … a constant refrain: students, tutors, academics, visitors, whoever, talking about John Gardner John Gardner John Gardner: "the nicest guy in Oxford" was the usual accompanying phrase. Contrary misanthrope from my early years I thought, "who the actual **** is this guy? I bet he is not THAT nice at all!" and then, in the Trinity term of my first year, I thought I had been proved right - John was one of my Qualifying Test examiners for transferring onto the DPhil - together with Jim Harris. On a beautiful warm day at Keble they grilled me thoroughly on my Fishy chapter (no, really, it was on Stanley Fish...did I get a groan from you yet?! No matter, plenty more opportunities to come), and, most of all, John grilled me, on my thesis outline which was not really an outline at all in that there was really nothing linear, structural, or in any way contentful in it. I left feeling I had definitely not passed. And feeling very grumpy about “Mr Nicest Guy in Oxford” not being so nice to poor little me! Joseph phoned to ask me how the test had gone. "Terrible!"... I whined, “…and as for JOHN GARDNER, well!, he asked me this and that and probed on this other thing and tried to see if my thesis was best going this way or that way..." - I knew even as I spoke that I was talking a lot of rubbish and Joseph, who is really good at this, as well as at all that philosophy stuff he does, made this clear to me in no uncertain terms and very few words with a "... Hmmm ... Julie ... so what you are saying to me is ... John did his job, and he did it really well?" Joseph was right, of course, of course, all the people were right, John was nothing but courteous, professional, helpful, helping me, and I was just insecure and defensive and in my Scottish way saw everything not explicitly presenting otherwise as a fight... it might have helped my revised view that John was indeed "the nicest guy in Oxford" that I passed the Qualifying Test with no corrections right enough, and, while we are on that, Joseph somehow managed to make telling me that a piece of performance art gone terrifying: he phoned me again later the same day and said: "Julie, are you OK? I wanted to tell you ... John Major has resigned". "Ahmmmoh?" I replied, one of several non-committal phrases I was rapidly developing to cope with Joseph's sometimes Sphinx-like comments. "Yes, John Major has resigned", Joseph continued... [PAUSE] "… but not as Prime Minister ... only as leader of the Conservative Party ... [GIANT PAUSE OF EXTREME GIANTNESS] ... but you … you Julie … you are doing considerably better than John Major … because I have learned (as it turned out, from "THE NICEST GUY IN OXFORD") that you have passed your Qualifying Test with no corrections! Hee hee hee hee hee! Well done! hee hee hee!”

... fade out and fade in some years later … I was working at UCL, and having a difficult time post-DPhil settling in London where I knew almost no one … but how much support, fellowship and camaraderie did I have from John: from post-work drinks in Bloomsbury pubs, to inviting me to lunch at Kings and being both gracious and funny when I was late, telling me "Yes Julie, you see it’s the case that the exact distance from Embankment tube to KCL is ... always ten minutes more than you have." (I stole that, John, and I have used it shamelessly and often ever since (adapted for context). It always gets a laugh. Nails it. Sorry for no credit or royalties to you, when I steal I just STEAL), to reading groups where I learned so much but had fun in heaps more proportion, to a time I was remembering just the other day when John had moved to the Chair at Oxford, and he came back to do a seminar for the UCL postgrads … as usual I was socially and intellectually awkward, said nothing in the seminar, then at the end I came up to John while an earnest postgrad asked him something involved about whatever - I shuffled, coughed, and said, "Oh, hi John ... I just thought I should come up and say hello in a more meaningful sense than…" I trailed off. "A more meaningful sense than?!?" said John; "Yes" I continued, “errr … yes ... in a more meaningful sense than ... not saying hello." I would have more than gladly fallen right through the floor, but John ROARED with laughter, made it all OK, the postgrads looked at me puzzled, though they realised after The Great Laughing of Professor Gardner that I was clearly imbued with some hilarious qualities they could just not manage to detect … not really, just John being John.

... a few years later I was considering applying for some Tutorial Fellowships in Oxford but for various personal reasons I had lost a lot of self-confidence and self-belief, and I didn’t know any more if Oxford was for me, or me for it. One morning I was leaving Oxford for London after a conference and was in a state of indecision and anxiety … John took the time to phone me, to compliment me on the comment paper I had given at the conference, and to ask if I had decided about applying to the Oxford jobs … he then talked me through everything with great care, support and sensitivity … I will never forget that conversation … at a time when I simply could not have needed it more, John bolstered me, gave me back confidence in myself as an academic and as a person, did what he did so many times over the years: simply stood strong shoulder to shoulder with me when I really needed it – the best colleague I will ever have.

... how many other stories there are … I know they are small, me-centred, I mention them partly because I really have a thing in this life that sometimes the smallest things and interactions can mean the world to someone else in the circumstances ... it gives me hope that good can be done, and even that I can do good, maybe, by chance interactions that I don’t even realise what they mean to others. So it goes with these small tales of John and me … they are just in the category of things that mean the world to me. Many more come to my mind even as I try to finish this email! Meeting me for lunch, or drinks, when Oxford and its strange practices got too much; encouraging emails, always bucking me up, never patronising, always giving me largely undeserved praise to help me; excessive laughing at my terrible jokes; despatching himself to my office - late on a Friday afternoon no less! - to “talk me down” from falling out with an array of colleagues and OUP editors, and, more importantly he said, to tell me that he was worried that I was losing sight of what are the genuinely enjoyable parts of the job - not the bullsh**, not the titles, not the REF, but the bits we love: the students, the teaching, the research for its own sake, the wonder of intellectual work, the vocation of it ... it’s another very short conversation I will never forget, I have never forgotten, I call it to mind very often when some latest variant of academic bollocks manifests itself.

No doubt I am not even remembering the half of it. But the constant themes are clear to me. John: your generosity, of spirit, and your generosity with yourself, with your words, your actions, your laughter, your support, your everything … it is woven through my whole professional life in a way which is much more personal than professional to me. These things, and all they did to help me, they are in my heart and always will be.

Just one more! I am coming to a close, I promise! A walk around Manhattan with John. Late 1990s, early 2000s, not sure which, before a conference I don’t remember much of … I think it might have been that time, do you remember, John?, when on a Saturday night after the conference it was like 70 degrees F at 9pm and then the Sunday morning it was 2 feet of snow in Central Park ... crazy!, I think I remember you telling me after you were equipped only with light t-shirts and trainers to face the blizzard!, anyway, it was before the conference, the day before, you said let’s meet, we can have a walk .... we met in Washington Square at the arch, me nervous because although you were always so great to me I felt shy and in awe and all that stuff, but that day we had a real laugh, bad philosophy jokes and jurisprudential gossip ... I remember we saw a notice on a cafe or bar or something, it referred to and attributed qualities to non-existent entities in very confused terms, something like "come to our theme night and experience the pagan times of Henry VIIIth's Victorian England"! - I said something like: "Jesus H Christ, what would all the realists in semantics coming to the conference tomorrow say about THAT?!"; you laughed a thousand times louder than it deserved … all day walking and talking and gossiping and everything was silly and fun and comfortable and being beside the Flatiron building and … is there anything better than that in terms of colleaguey cameraderie? I know I am not going to find better on that front in this life. This is an even more sentimental bit to finish. I felt that day, John, as clearly as I ever have, what I have always felt about you ... forgive and indulge me, please, I felt as if you were my SO SO cool and funny and clever and kind big brother, in the professional domain I mean, that I got to meet up with and had managed to make laugh walking in New York and just ... what can I say … it was a GREAT DAY. I am perhaps inclined to such secret adoptions, having no siblings of my own. But it is what I did, and do, feel.

I will stop here. But I will never stop remembering all the above, with gratitude, with a sense of utter good fortune, and with just a big big smile on my face.

With lots of love,

Julie xxxx