Monday, October 02, 2006

Ewen Green 1958-2006

"So, what have you been reading?"

One of the great privileges of studying at Oxford University is the chance to learn by discussing ideas, having the chance to set out an argument and then discovering different ways of examining the subject, being guided by some of the experts in any particular field. At its best, it is inspirational, and the time spent and the things learned in tutorials stay with you for the rest of your life.

Ewen Green, who sadly passed away last month after a long illness, was my tutor in my first term at university, seven years ago. His three books on Conservatism are generally acknowledged by scholars as exceptional, but there are many exceptional scholars who save their efforts for their research, not for their students, let along first year undergraduates. Ewen was never like that - it was in the weekly tutorial (meant to last an hour but invariably overrunning) that I discovered the scope of his knowledge, his generosity and his ability to inspire students with passion for his subject.

Every tutorial would start with the question 'What have you been reading?', as a way into a discussion of that week's chosen subject. He would explain clearly any points that I had missed or not understood, and, where I felt that I had mastered the subject, he would stretch my knowledge and push me towards a deeper and more subtle understanding. With each tutorial I learned more, not just about the subject we had been discussing, but about how to interpret argument, how to analyse facts, how, essentially, to think.

At the end of each tutorial, he would set a question, and select the reading list by walking round his room, which was filled with books on shelves reaching up to the ceiling on all sides, and more piled up on the floor - thousands upon thousands of books, and yet he was always able to pick out the ones most relevant to the question in hand. In subsequent years, he would always have time when I wanted advice about further study or questions about some aspect or other of the Edwardian era. Although he never taught me directly, I would often benefit from his dry wit or suggestions about articles or books to read, and I regret, now more than ever, losing touch after I left Magdalen three years ago.

A Labour supporter whose application to join the Labour Party in the early 80s was refused on the grounds that the local branch 'was full' (a story he would tell with some delight), it was a shock when he was diagnosed with MS. Yet he continued to be active and publish more books, and I suppose I imagined that somehow he would still be tutoring each new generation of undergraduates and inspiring them as he did me. It's not until I heard that he had passed away that I really realised how much I owed to his teaching. As Peter Clarke wrote in his obituary:

He hoped for a cure, of course, but accepted his lot in the end without illusion. "But, hey," he would say, moving the conversation on. The fact that his death came so early means that his many friends take away abiding memories of his vitality, energy and spontaneity, his sense of commitment and, not least, his mordantly effervescent sense of fun.

UPDATE: Just found this, from a BBC feature on memories of the miners' strike a couple of years ago:

I was a graduate student in Cambridge during the strike. I supported the miners. When I became a don in Oxford I was told that when Thatcher visited All Souls College during the strike a Labour-voting don showed her around. When they came to a portrait of the 1930s Marxer it was first fellow of the College, GDH. Cole, he told Thatcher it was the famous left winger GDH Dole, hoping she would correct him by saying "Cole [coal] not Dole" as he wanted her to hear her say that just once - she didn't!
Ewen Green, Oxford, England


At 2:19 pm , Anonymous Anna said...

Hi Dan,

Haven't seen you for ages, nor many others from Magdalen, which might explain why I didn't know Ewen had died. This is a lovely post. Given that I did law, I was never taught by him, but he was always kind and thoughtful.

Hope you're doing OK - I occasionally hear of you from Kirsty and Tom Hamilton. I'm sure our paths will cross sooner or later.

Anna Beale (although actually I'm Garrood now - got married last month!)

At 9:11 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Anna,

Great to hear from you, and congratulations on getting married!

Ewen's room was presumably two staircases down from your's. I'm glad I'm not the only one who's hardly seen anyone from Magdalen for a while...

Hope all's well, and will do my best to catch up sometime when am down in London.

Take care

Dan xxx

At 7:11 pm , Anonymous Simon said...

Dear Dan,

I am Ewen's brother. I just came across your post this morning and want to thank you for a brilliant tribute.Other letters and comments I have received from his students have,like yours,highlighted for me an aspect of his academic background that I was not familiar with. I never knew that he was such a good teacher! Sadly, I will be down in Oxford in a week or so to organise the packing up of the books from his room that you mention so evocatively.

Cheers, Simon

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