The winter holiday always makes posting difficult, and, as darkly implied last post, I have to shunt my next planned post because of people whom I can’t ignore making their final departures from among us. One was an academic contact, the other, as sometimes happens on this blog, a musician I cared about (I suppose I still do; tenses are weird around the deceased). I thought for a few minutes about some way I could combine reflections on them, but to be honest, other than that neither of them minded causing a bit of trouble when they thought they were in the right, that both were 82 when they died, and that I imagine if they caught the same bus to the beyond they got on fine, it didn’t seem like a respectful way to salute either of them. So I’ll record them separately and hope that, if you’re here for historical content, you can hang on a moment.
So, Nicholas Turner, known to one and all as Nik, saxophonist, flautist and hippy to the end, the so-called ‘Spirit of Hawkwind’ and the man after whose features that legendary band was legendarily named, was one of the musicians I’ve probably seen most often on a stage. I saw him with Hawkwind, in a couple of the ten-minute slots he and the main band were talking again in the 1990s, with his punk outfit Inner City Unit, under his own name, with his various post-Hawkwind revivals like Space Ritual, and with several combinations of the above. He was capable of stealing most shows, even when he himself was woefully under-rehearsed; he seemed to have played withb everyone in the rock world; and he was unfailingly cheerful and polite to anyone who’d come out to see him. His retirement plan seemed to be to record a new album every year until he no longer needed to, and I’m not going to say they were all fantastic, but he did write and record some of the most iconic space-rock ever and at least one of the very weirdest albums I ever heard, and if you’ve seen my music collection you’ll know that neither of those are minor honours.
I got into much of that weird music via an ancient listserv mailing list which closed, finally, earlier this year. Up till then, more or less all news about Hawkwind and its friends and relations had reached me by that list. Thus, five weeks or so ago when I had Nik’s Space Gypsy on the stereo, I suddenly thought, ‘Christ, if he’d died I wouldn’t know.’ And of course, as almost has to be true when one of those forebodings strikes you, he’d moved on to the next phase of his cosmic journey, as his closest are choosing to put it, eleven days before. I’m not sure how comfortable a life he’d led, but it does seem reasonable to say that he spent it doing pretty much what he wanted and that lots of people were always glad to see him, and I personally would settle for such an epitaph, no problem.
Then a few days later I got a text message, itself not untraumatic as my phone was slowly ceasing to work and has now had to be replaced with something more like a phone as others recognise them, recording the second departure. It took me a little while to confirm that Professor Paul Hyams had in fact gone, as new phone or not I’m still not doing Facebook and, as with Nik, that seemed to be where the news broke, but eventually his erstwhile employer and in some sense also mine, Pembroke College Oxford, posted an obituary, and I had to believe it. Cornell, his more recent posting, followed up a few days later.
I don’t think anyone would say anything against Paul’s scholarship; his work focused primarily on justice and dispute resolution in high medieval England and the things they revealed about that society, and his book Rancor and Reconciliation is probably still the go-to treatment of feud-like dispute settlement by violence and the attempts by government either to stop or to manage it for post-conquest England. He also wrote on the origins of the common law, a field in which from what I see from the outside agreement is basically impossible but where his contributions were well respected. However, that tendency to cause trouble I mentioned meant that opinion was probably more divided on him as personality; even I saw him launch quite aggressive questions into a seminar discussion, as if scholarship was a gladiatorial arena and the contest won by making everyone else feel awkward (some gentle examples at the Cornell article which provided the photo above give an impression). I have to say that I never found him anything other than sympathetic, witty and kind in actual conversation, however. There might be reasons for that, one being that my father also used to play social engagement like that sometimes and it’s remained a habit among some of my family, so that I was just used to deflecting it; but actually, I don’t remember ever having to do that with Paul myself. And I think that the softer and odder reason is that I first actually met him in the company of Another Damned Medievalist, who knew his wife and could thus threaten him with unspecified social sanction when he played up, as a consequence of which he ruefully didn’t bother when he was around her and a more human Hyams came out instead. And because I connected to that network somehow, I always got the human Hyams. I may have been quite lucky in that; but still, as both scholar and raconteur, wit and good company, I shall miss him. There were many good reasons to do so.
So there is the sad news of the end of 2022, perhaps not all of it but I hope so, and soon, very soon I hope, I can try to prevent the blog falling further behind than the three-and-a-bit year mark I’ve been holding this year. But for now, I hope you’ll forgive me saying goodbye to these two gents, both big noises in their fields whose sound we shan’t hear again.
Sorry for both these losses, TenthMedieval. These are lovely tributes.
I love the idea of catching the bus to the Great Beyond. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, ergo silentium facio.
I never met Dr. Hyams in person but have corresponded with him via e-mail on occasion. I always found him kind, engaged, polite – all the attributes to assign to a gentleman. And I must note his association with my alma mater. I was sorry to hear if his passing. A life well-lived and at his age not a surprise but the world is lessened in some small way without his presence in it.
Thanks, Curt, very nicely put.