I’m sorry for the silence – I’ve been recovering from eye surgery a fortnight ago and have tried hard to restrict my screen time during that period. But today I received the immensely sad news of the death of John Davey last Friday, two days after his 72nd birthday, and so, following a long walk, I’m back at my keyboard and staring blankly into the white space. And not because of the spots in my eyes.
To say that John was the Geography editor for Edward Arnold in the 1960s and 70s (where, among many other pathbreaking books, he published David Harvey‘s Explanation in Geography and Social justice and the city) and from 1977 at Blackwell (where he continued and even accelerated that critical tradition) is already to say a lot: his extraordinary contributions to nurturing geographical scholarship were justly recognised by the AAG and the Royal Geographical Society.
But it isn’t to say nearly enough. John, like a handful of others I can think of from that time – Janice Price at Methuen, Mark Cohen and Rob Shreeve at Hutchinson – was one of those rare publishers who believed passionately that books created their audiences and that geography was so much more than a textbook machine. He didn’t spurn textbooks, but he had a non-mercenary and thoroughly ambitious sense of what they ought to strive for.
John was an English graduate, and a constant reminder that a geographical sensibility is scarcely confined to the discipline, and his conversations were generous lessons in intellectual vitality laced with an enviable wit (enviable not least because it was never cruel). When I was writing what eventually – how John would have smiled at that adverb – became Geographical imaginations he was always encouraging, never hectoring (he never once reminded me of a missed deadline, let alone rebuked me for it; he understood that intellectual work takes time and that deadlines are artificial and sometimes inimical to serious work). He read carefully and critically what I wrote and engaged with it in a generous, wide-ranging and unfailingly creative fashion. In fact, all my conversations with John were like that, so much so that he was the very best academic colleague I never had.
I remember too how he wrote to Ron Johnston, Peter Haggett, David Smith, David Stoddart and me about his idea for a Dictionary of Human Geography. Most of us – the exception was of course Ron – were deeply sceptical and I think politely said no; but it was impossible to say no to John for very long, and he artfully told each of us that it was such a pity since everybody else had agreed… so we were all hauled on board his pirate ship. Like so much else it would never have been launched without John’s imagination, foresight and good humour (or the bottles he cracked across our bows). And that’s more than fantasy: working with him was always an adventure, an open invitation to sail further into the unknown and to share what we found.
After John left Blackwell – the victim of corporate stupidity and cruelty – I remember going to dinner at the house he shared in Jericho with his partner Alison, the unforced warmth of their collective welcome, and their (then) two children Emily and George roaring with delight as they wrestled me to the ground: and above all, I remember John’s evident delight at our delight.
His enthusiasm for books of all kinds was boundless, and he believed passionately that you could never become a good writer unless you were also a good reader. Limiting yourself to academic prose was never going to raise the bar. I remember endless conversations at conferences – geographical conferences – about crime fiction, sometimes with Barbara Kennedy, another aficionado (aficianoda? John would have known…), and as we gossiped about our favourite authors and new discoveries, John would take notes in that wonderfully spiky hand of his on tiny scraps of paper.
So as I arrive at what I think of as an Oxford full stop – if only it were just a comma – I shall miss that hand, both physically and metaphorically, his friendship and above all his infectious enthusiasm for life. In her message to his friends today Alison wrote of the jolly times they had together, even in these last months, and that’s the word that captures so much of the wonderful man I knew: jolly. His appetite for life, and his determination to share it with others, was a lasting gift to all of us. It’s quite something when the death of a friend brings tears to your eyes and a smile to your face.
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