A Sociological Autobiography: 34 – The Coming of Higgs

By | October 6, 2014

The mid-1990s brought with it a new kind of companionship at UCL. For many years I had soldiered on with my medical school teaching without much by way of support, seasonal peripatetic tutors apart that is. But in 1994 Stan Newman, inheritor of the headship of the Department of Psychiatry (and thenceforth also of) ‘Behavioural Sciences’ following the resignation of Rachel Rosser, secured the ‘unfreezing’ of a second lectureship in Sociology. The short-list for this appointment was impressive: James Nazroo, Gillian Bendelow and Paul Higgs. James and Gill, now Professors at Manchester and Brighton (via Sussex) respectively, were in the early stages of their careers, while Paul already held a lectureship at St.George’s Hospital Medical School. Stan left the decision to me and the selection of Paul helped compensate for a sense of missing out on James and Gill.

I have already said that I had been lucky with my principal colleagues, to this point David Blane and Ray Fitzpatrick. There had and have only been occasional and insignificant hiccups in good and continuing friendships. Paul was to become another close – in some ways the closest – consociate. Oddly, the fact that we had allied interests was a challenge for me. David Blane’s practical and committed Trotskyism in the mid-1970s had caught me unprepared. He had a well-tended and watered Marxist framework and had acquired the habit of picking up abandoned copies of the Financial Times on the tube to flesh out the detail. His work as an ASTMS shop steward and propagandist was paramount. For my part, I was still grappling with abstruse philosophical and theoretical stuff. As for Ray, he developed a clear-sighted view of what he wanted and how to achieve it. For my part, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was still grappling … But Paul was different: he was grappling too, and with much the same stuff. I had continued as a loner, writing in voluntary exclusion in my favourite cafes around Fulham Palace and Charing Cross Roads whilst enjoying good working relations with David and Ray; but Paul and I soon started to go together to the cafes that formed an inviting belt around Riding House Street and the Middlesex Hospital in particular and Fitzrovia in general. We were often joined by Stan’s secretary, Liz Wake, and, later, by James Thompson and Paul’s impressive Ph.D student Martin Hyde. Many a diverting hour or two was passed in this splendid company.

Paul failed the 11+, fought his way back and into North London Polytechnic, later adjourning to Kent University to complete his Ph.D on schedule, and is now Professor of the Sociology of Ageing at UCL. Any institutional accolades accruing to any of my own babyboomer cohort pale into insignificance besides this: it was statistically exceptional to recover, and so much more, after failing the 11+. Paul differed from David and Ray in his interests, knowledge and reading in social theory, so our interests overlapped. From the outset we were able to assume a common ‘stock of knowledge’ – to borrow a phrase from Schutz – and therefore to employ an expeditious shorthand. He has occasioned many a rethink on my part. Ok, so I read books and he reads book reviews (and tube adverts) and I struggled to get a word in edgeways, but life is a compromise! I began to enjoy a collegiality I had not experienced to that point.

Paul’s memory is prodigious and there is astonishingly little that he has not thought about and thought through to a conclusion of sorts. This was almost as true in the mid-1990s as it is now. He also liked and likes winning arguments. After a pint or three in the One Tunn, Judy Green and I once elicited an admission that winning an argument could on occasion trump a judicious summation. In the company of psychologist Chris Gilleard he has co-authored a series – will it ever end? – on the dynamics of ageing in contemporary society; Cultures of Ageing, which saw the light of day in 2000, was just the beginning. The capacity of these two talented and imaginative academics to work together is almost as intriguing as their output. They are like an old married couple. After all, two obdurate and argumentative beings cannot both be victorious in dispute. Apparently the one tries to write faster than the other can delete. But there is talent to spare. This is not to say either that I agreed with them from the outset or do so now. For me, structure takes too much of a back seat to culture in their prodigious writings. Although I am obliged to agree that retirement and the third age are no longer synonymous with material as well as symbolic disadvantage, I have yet to be persuaded that class relations so swiftly lose their salience from one’s mid-60s. I would like to see more on the political economy of ageing. But the arguments here are complex and I shall doubtless revisit them at some point.

I shall have more to say about Paul too, who remained my closest colleague and sometime collaborator up to my retirement in the autumn of 2013. But let me anticipate by paying a compliment or two. In the spring semester of 1998, at the invitation of Department Chair Terry Boswell, Annette and I opted to take a sabbatical to teach a mix of under- and post-graduate courses as Visiting Professors in the Department of Sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, USA. Paul uncomplainingly covered my UCL MB,BS and M.Sc teaching, a not inconsiderable commitment. Fortunately we were able to fund a brief trip to Atlanta for him during our time away. He also stepped in to cover me when two of my daughters, Sasha and Miranda, went on to do our M.Sc (he was to supervise Sasha’s Ph.D too). Much later, when, as Chair of the UCL Sociology Network, I was striving to persuade then UCL Provost, Malcolm Grant, to fund a virtual ‘Institute of Sociological Studies’, Paul was the one sociologist in our ‘university within a university’ who attended all our gatherings and programme of seminars. Others, chiming with changing times, bided their time: they would jump on board if and when we got the go-ahead. We didn’t! Finally, Paul’s initiative and diligence was behind a post-retirement celebration of my work during a wonderful afternoon in March of 2014. Now, further into retirement, I still enjoy our coffees and talk, usually in Nero’s in Tottenham Court Road. As ever, we are sounding boards for each other’s musings on philosophy, social theory and … well … life.



Leave a Reply