Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

V. L. Ménage (1920-2015) Turcologist and Historian of the Early Ottoman State: A Personal Memoir

Academic journal article International Journal of Turkish Studies

V. L. Ménage (1920-2015) Turcologist and Historian of the Early Ottoman State: A Personal Memoir

Article excerpt

Almost a quarter of a century ago my colleague Colin Imber and I were gathering contributions for a Festschrift to honor the seventy-fifth birthday of V. L. Ménage, the second (after the late Professor Paul Wittek) and possibly the last holder of the Chair of Turkish in the University of London. The ill-kept secret precipitated a characteristic note from Ménage that if there was to be a Festschrift-"an honour, may I say, that I never remotely dreamed of receiving"-he would appreciate that it be published without the usual laudatory introduction: a careful bibliography would suffice.

Ménage had been my mentor, friendly but not uncritical supporter and, eventually, colleague at SOAS since the early sixties, so the Festschrift appeared in the autumn of 1994 without an introduction.1 In compensation, however, Ménage provided me, under conditions of strict confidentiality, a series of autobiographical notes to be used "when the occasion presents itself." Professor Ménage's death at his Sussex cottage in early June 2015 sadly provides the "occasion." 2

Victor Louis Ménage was born on 15 April 1920, at Chislehurst, in Kent. His family's origins are obscure (although his surname suggests Huguenot ancestry), and his childhood appears to have been overshadowed by both family dissension and poverty. "I don't mean Love-on-the-dole /George Orwell poverty," he wrote many years later; "we didn't go hungry; but come Thursday there was (literally) no money in the house at all." Victor's escape was into school: from 1930 to 1938 he attended Eltham College, "with the sort of scholarship which preceded the 11-plus."3 Encouraged by teachers eager for Oxbridge scholarships, he set his sights on Cambridge, "sweated blood," and won a place at Clare College, the second oldest and one of the grandest of Cambridge's colleges, to read classics (1938-40). Cushioned by both a state scholarship and a junior college bursary, he was able to pay the rates for the family home and help out with school fees for an invalid brother.

At a Cambridge Ménage was (or described himself as) "a complete fish out of water." "I came smack up against Winchester and Marlborough, who had begun Latin at eight and Greek at ten-but were unsullied by maths or physics." One anecdote, retailed later, which conveys his acidic view of the times, concerns (Sir) Henry Thirkill (1886-1971), physicist, college administrator and prominent Freemason, who was Senior Tutor and then (1939-58) Master of Clare, and reported, perhaps apocryphally to be a "notorious liberal," making it a point of policy to admit each year one boy from a grammar school, and one Indian, "provided he was the prince of a ruling house."

The upshot of the experiences of his first two decades was to convince Ménage, at least in retrospect, that he was in revolt "against pretty well everything and everybody." Then, came the war. On being called up (in 1940), he registered as a conscientious objector and, through the good offices of two of his teachers from Eltham College, was taken on in the Friends' (i.e., Quaker) Ambulance Unit. In these unlikely surroundings, he recalled, he "found much peace of mind."

The end of the war found Ménage in Ethiopia. In need of funds to support himself and his by-now-deserted mother, he turned down the opportunity to return to Cambridge, taking up instead an opening to teach at Addis Ababa, Ménage describing his years there in the late 1940s as "stimulating pioneering work." The Addis operation was eventually taken under the wing of the British Council, and it was in the context of the British Council that Ménage met Johanna, who became his wife and lifelong partner.

The year 1950, by which time Ménage was thirty, marks a seachange in his life and career. His family obligations were very much less, and the straitened but hopeful years of the postwar Labour administration witnessed the great expansion of oriental studies and their concentration at SOAS as a consequence of the Scarbrough Report (1946). …

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