Tuesday, February 03, 2004

ALAN, LORD BULLOCK OF LEAFIELD, 1914-2004 Alan Bullock, the distinguished British historian, educator, and administrator, died yesterday here in Oxford. Bullock wrote monumental and pioneering lives of Hitler and the British Labour leader and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (he admired the latter, and felt for the former what all decent people feel), as well as a weighty comparison of Hitler and Stalin; he also authored, co-authored, edited and co-edited a number of important works of historical reference. He was one of the great academic impressarios of his age.
In addition to his careful, clearly-written, thorough, and sometimes innovative works of scholarship, Bullock -- the son of an autodidact gardener turned Unitarian preacher -- was a public-spirited citizen who served on, and in some cases chaired, a large number of committees and boards. His greatest institutional accomplishment, in many people's eyes, was the foundation of St. Catherine's College, Oxford, the only undergraduate college to be founded at Oxford in the 20th century.
As it happens, I learnt of Bullock's death when I was lunching at St. Catz's today with my supervisor, who's a Fellow of the college and who knew Bullock well. I also sat next to Wilfrid Knapp, a sometime pupil of Bullock who had set the foundation of St Catz's underway by suggesting that Bullock become head of the St. Catherine's Society, at that time an association for students at Oxford without college affiliation, which eventually became the college. I lunched in the Senior Common Room at Catz, sitting in the large chairs and using the specially-designed (and, in my opinion, quite charming) silverware, both of them -- like Catz's architecture and landscaping, which blends seamlessly into the landscape and is among the best modern architecture at Oxford (not a great boast, perhaps) -- the work of the architect Arne Jacobsen, whose triumph of modern design owes much to Bullock's advocacy and understanding. Presiding over the table, as it were, was a large portrait of Bullock -- like Catz's, and like the man himself, utterly modern, yet possessing a nobility and humanity more characteristic of an earlier age, and lacking the worst and most brutal tendencies of the times. Catz -- friendly, egalitarian, free of the malice and constriction that can develop in academic enclaves -- is a marvelous monument to Bullock's memory, a true reflection of the man; and I'm glad to have been able to be there when I learnt of his death. I'm only sorry that I didn't reach Oxford until he was already to ill for me to meet him.
Obits: The Times, The Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph.

SOLDIERS IN THE BATTLE FOR HUMAN LIBERTY: You (yes, you!) should really go read this long, but engrossing and worthwhile, account of the British abolitionist movement. It's a fascinating story, both in its own rights, and in the ways that the British abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries originated and/or used versions of a good many present-day strategies for political activism.
I have one slight quibble: the article -- not wholly surprisingly, given its appearance in Mother Jones -- concludes with a call to action on behalf of justice and humanity against the pessimism of 'realists'. Now, there's certainly something to this, as the abolitinist movement shows -- as Anatole France wrote, if there were no dreamers, men would still live in caves. And many of the causes the author cites are certainly worth struggling for. But I find it hard not to be a pessimistic 'realist' when he talks about ending the 'habit' of war. Certainly, many evil institutions and activities can be outlawed and discouraged; but to purge human nature of violent aggression does seem to me to cross the line from the idealistic to the, well, barmy.
But that's just a caveat about the last, short paragraph; the rest f the article tells an important and inspiring story, reminding us of evils once perpetrated in pursuit of profit, and the heroic men and women who devoted their lives to freeing their fellow humans from bondage -- and that, surely, is always worth remembering.

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