Academic journal article History In Africa

J.D. Fage 1921-2002(1)

Academic journal article History In Africa

J.D. Fage 1921-2002(1)

Article excerpt

In John Page's company one never felt subject to demands that his eminence be ritually acknowledged. Somehow he did not require this kind of reassurance and managed to be utterly free of pomp. Though he was the founder of our Birmingham Centre of West African Studies, he did not expect the rest of us to see its headship as his natural preserve. In the 1970s he unsuccessfully tried to modify the conditions of his university appointment so as to pass on the directorship to each of his CWAS colleagues in rotation, independent of rank. He was a man of elegant deportment and refined manners, cultivating what now seems an old-worldly reticence about his feelings and achievements, (At the time that oh so very British style could already induce some amusement in barbarians from, say, the European continent, South Africa, or South America. But some other styles that have become current since make one remember the old dispensation with nostalgic fondness).

All he did was done effortlessly, or so his behavior seemed to suggest: running CWAS, being a family man, co-founding (1960) and coediting (up to 1973) with Roland Oliver the Journal of African History, co-editing (also with Oliver) the Cambridge History of Africa, authoring successful and much reprinted books, supervising theses, teaching undergraduates, helping to launch and edit the UNESCO General History of Africa, serving as the first Honorary secretary of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom, serving in the Executive Council of the International African Institute, fulfilling increasingly senior functions in the government of the University of Birmingham, and this is not a complete list. He enjoyed claiming that lucky breaks just kept coming his way-he had barely needed to swim, being always carried forward by warm currents not of his own making. In fact he was a man of steely willpower, a quality made transparent by the little fact that he quit smoking overnight without observable withdrawal symptoms. The structures he inhabited were not given him ready-made: he was a builder.

John Page embodied a mode of English peculiarity genuinely open to other ways. If one took John's disclaimers about himself at face value, it would be easy to perceive that openness as another of his unsolicited gifts from the gods. But it is likelier to have been the result of cultural work he did on himself in tune with others in the generation who emerged from service in World War II with hopes of a new deal for everybody everywhere. Much rubbish remained to be burned in what passed for common sense then. Even in the 1960s it was still common to hear offensive remarks about Africa unselfconsciously passed around in conversations between expatriates teaching in the continent, and in some polite academic circles outside it.

A non-CWAS historian colleague once told me that while doing his doctorate at a very reputable university other than Birmingham he had received a letter from Ghana, sent by one David Henigc. The letter inquired about modes of dynastic succession the narrator of the story was investigating for the PhD. His supervisor, aware that many Ghanaians have family names of European origin, advised against replying to the letter, on the grounds that its sender "was probably a negro trying to write a cheap thesis on the back of somebody else's research." John Page belongs to those who performed the cultural operation of pushing attitudes of this kind out of the realm of "acceptable" academic discourse.

The only two occasions when I saw that famously unflappable man shaken had to do with sympathy with human loss. The first, at Christinas 1969, was when we first talked of the sudden death of our CWAS colleague, the anthropologist Robert ("Brad") Bradbury. The second was when he brought me, three years later, the telegram announcing that Musa Baba Idris (a scholar from Kaiama preparing his PhD thesis for submission to CWAS) had been killed with his bride on the ZariaKano road. …

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