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.