A gentle giant

 

Ed Soja (Jan Sprij)

I was so sad to hear of the death of Ed Soja.  A lifetime ago Ed and Maureen spent his sabbatical at Cambridge, and they rented the house next door to us.  At least once a week Ed and I would meet for what we told our families were our ‘seminars’ – and so they were, though there just the two of us sitting in the yard of the pub across King Street from the back gate of Sidney Sussex College, glasses on the creaky table in front of us and the air full of smoke from Ed’s cigarettes.

They were precious times.  Ed’s sharp intellect opened up all sorts of avenues I would never have noticed on my own, and while we disagreed on all sorts of things – to this day I don’t understand why Foucault’s essay on heterotopia, ‘Of other spaces’, is taken even remotely seriously – we agreed on so many more: the power of Foucault’s writing (Ed used to say he could taste the words in his mouth), his archival seriousness (at that time there were few commentators who appreciated that Foucault was an intensely empirical scholar), and his astonishingly creative imagination.  Above all, we were entranced by the multiple ways in which he re-thought and re-worked ideas of space and spatiality and traced that dazzling triangle between power, knowledge and geography.

You could, of course, say exactly the same of Ed.

Our conversations soon spilled over – rather like our beers – into an equally intense discussion of Lefebvre.  Ed was fascinated by the introduction to The production of space, and the schema that he would eventually elaborate in Postmodern geographies and then Thirdspace, whereas I was beginning to think through his ideas about bodies in spaces (probably a carry-over from our joint readings of Discipline and punish).  But it was Ed’s probing questions, his patient encouragement and his ability to see connections that were indispensable to my intellectual journey.

Whenever the four of us had dinner together, it was always a special pleasure to listen to Maureen either puncturing Ed’s wilder bursts of fantasy – or encouraging them – with dry one-liners that to this day make me howl with laughter.  I vividly remember Ed being invited to a dinner party shortly before they returned home; they had been guests there once before, and it had not been a success, but Ed gamely accepted a second invitation.  Maureen flatly – and understandably – refused to go, and throughout that long afternoon Ed sat at the table alternately pleading with Maureen to relent and summoning me for a drink with the condemned man.  When he got there, he found that the partners of all the other guests had suddenly developed colds, the flu or broken legs.

Ed enlivened the Department of Geography no end too, and delighted the graduate students with his healthy irreverence, his sense of intellectual adventure – and by his evident happiness at spending time with them.

Throughout all these meetings, Ed was a wonderful companion: dazzlingly well read, rigorously critical, intellectually generous, achingly funny and above all intensely passionate.  He once proclaimed to me, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis (and here I leave out Ed’s punctuating adverbs): ‘If we aren’t interested in this, why on earth should anyone else be?’

When Ed rose at a conference to ask a question it was like the towering inferno made flesh: he was so tall that just when you thought he was finally on his feet he somehow carried on rising, and he was almost always quivering with passion.

All of this came together in perhaps my favourite memory of Ed.  We shared a room at an AAG meeting – I think it was in Portland – and we were entertaining ourselves by combing through a book of abstracts whose weight rivalled the London phone directory.  Much of it was about as interesting: spatial science still had a deadly grip on the field.  We had been reading out paper titles to one another when Ed suddenly erupted in delight.  I still think he was drawn to it because he had mis-read the title; Ed was already a high priest of postmodernism, and the paper he had found was on ‘post-mortem migration’.   Somebody had found a dataset on snowbirds who had fled south to escape the northern winter and died before they could return home; the data listed the states to which their bodies had been returned and tabulated the numbers.  The author showed that the standard migration model of ‘intervening opportunities’ didn’t fit very well (surprisingly) and so fitted distance-decay curves to the data…  You couldn’t make it up, and it exemplified everything that Ed’s wonderful, illuminating life was not.