Big Ron

Ron Johnston – who died last night of a heart attack – was one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever known.

We became firm friends when I joined him, Peter Haggett, David Smith and David Stoddart as a co-editor of the first edition of the Dictionary of Human Geography; I wrote about our first collective meeting when our wonderful publisher (and another good friend) John Davey died three years ago.  We all met in the bowels of John’s club (and I say bowels advisedly); I was nervous about meeting such luminaries, but Ron was warm, welcoming and immensely enthusiastic – as always – and even at that first meeting combined a tremendous sense of fun (the jokes and banter came thick and fast on all sides) with intellectual vitality (this wasn’t going to be like any other Dictionary!) and a deep sense of responsibility (without Ron’s managerial and organisational skills I doubt that even John would have been able to guilt-trip us into finishing the project).

We worked closely together on multiple future editions, each one more demanding, and yet Ron never lost those fine qualities.

I’ve found a wonderful video of him talking with Peter about their love of Geography; it’s a promo for the University of Bristol, but it’s much more than that, and it’s here.

Ron moved from Monash through Christchurch (Canterbury) and Sheffield to Bristol via an interlude at Essex.  I vividly remember him resigning from the Vice-Chancellorship of at Essex to return to the world he loved most: teaching and research.  I wrote to say how much I admired his decision; Bristol was so very smart to appoint him once he stepped down. His move created a sensation at the time, but it was a humble and considered decision.  No careerist, Ron had no time for the brown-nosing that so many saw as the route to preferment; neither did he want to administer the work of others.  No matter how high his star rose, he never saw his colleagues, co-workers or students as somehow beneath him.  He was honest, forthright, and quick to acknowledge when he was wrong (apart from his love of Swindon).

He never stopped writing: writing, for Ron, was thinking – never a simple record of what he had done.  So he never stopped writing because he never stopped thinking (I had a message about his most recent publication on the same day that he was taken to hospital).  Writing for Ron was also living – once you knew Ron, you could hear his voice when you read his work, see the set of his jaw, the twinkle in his eye, and that lovely grin.  Just look at that video.

At one conference where we were supposed to be on the same panel, he was late (a rare event: he was unfailingly courteous), and I joked that he was presumably opening the Publishers’ Exhibition – which got a laugh – and then I added “Now I think of it, he is the Publishers’ Exhibition”, which brought the house down. Ron’s productivity was (and remains) legendary.  And it wasn’t jobbing-writing:  I’ve always marvelled at his ability to write so much and yet to hit the target so many times.

Those who live by citation counts (Ron didn’t) might do well to look at his and shrivel.

This isn’t the place to highlight even some of Ron’s books – how to choose?  But he once told me that his best selling book was his Atlas of Bells – he was a keen and talented campanologist – and I never did find out if he was joking.  It was of course published by John Davey, and now I can’t ask either of them.

We did very different things, but it didn’t matter.  And throughout our long friendship Ron also taught me – by doing rather than saying – that our collective work matters only in so far as it makes a difference to the world.  Ron wrote and wrote and wrote, but it wasn’t a personal odyssey (though he surely gained tremendous satisfaction from it – even if he was rarely satisfied with what he wrote).  He was passionate about the importance of university education, about our calling as teachers and researchers, and his textbooks spiralling through multiple editions showed that in spades; but he had no time for those who thought of universities as ‘ivory towers’, and he was more aware than most of how they are affected by and in turn affect the societies in which they are embedded.  He wanted to captivate his readers, many of them students, by guiding them to the frontiers of geographical research, and cultivating in them a love of ideas – and a profound responsibility for their practical implications.  Much of his substantive research focused on political geography, to which he made a host of vital contributions, but there was also a rich, deep and remarkably generous politics to all Ron’s writing and publishing.

And to his living too.

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.