I was to be Sir Harry's second last PhD student.The following was written after I learned of his death in 1998, the year after my graduation.
Among the many great achievements of his life, I understand Sir Harry holds the record for the largest number of successful PhD students in the University’s history and I am certainly honored to be among their number. I aim to add my voice to the many around the world offering thanksgiving for having the privilege of knowing such a truly magnificent human being.
Cambridge being the remarkable and unique place that it is, filled with so many incredible characters, I was reluctant to approach Sir Harry direct in case he would turn out to be as fierce and combative as his reputation might entitle lesser people to be. So I talked to the college Senior Tutor to ascertain the best method of approach to the great man. To my horror the Tutor snapped that I’d have no chance of success in my desire to meet with Sir Harry because he “runs his life, like he ran this college, which is to say, like MI6”.
Rather than deterring me, I was immediately curious as to why a senior member of college would hold such a particular view of Sir Harry, let alone express it publicly to a freshly-minted and very uncertain PhD student. I gathered up my first year registration essay, climbed the long and twisted stairs of chapel court, and knocked on the door.
A very loud and well rounded voice replied, not altogether ominously, to enter – much as one might have heard if one were a servant bearing coal for the hearth. I opened the ancient door to discover a long, dark, narrow room filled with a hazy blue smoke set against the feeble light of the window facing onto the courtyard a few weeks before Xmas. “Where was this booming voice coming from” I asked myself… but before my eyes could answer I was drawn to a small figure in a huge chair saying, more welcomingly this time, “come in my boy, come in”.
In juxtaposition to his larger than life achievements and intellect, Sir Harry was physically reminiscent of fine china - bony, light and extremely fragile. I remember once bumping into him on a very windy day in mid winter, Sir Harry with his characteristic French beret and overcoat, working hard against the wind to gain traction on the slippery cobbled streets adjacent to Portugal Place where he had retired after leaving the Master's Lodge. He looked like he might be lifted up and carried away by the wind. I was in my mid 20s, tall, heavy and robust, seeing him struggle in this way made me want to to pick him up and delicately carry him to where ever he was going - but the thought let alone the sight of that was both unbearably funny and pathetically sad perhaps more for me than him.
Having entered his dark musty rooms I approached the Professor through the gloom and extended my hand and had placed in mine a tiny bony claw twisted by arthritis into the shape of a hand holding a pen. Very gently I engulfed his hand in my fleshy paw making sure not to apply any pressure at all for fear of causing him injury. In a deep melodious voice quite out of sync with his frame Sir Harry bade me to sit down.
I sat and he asked me to explain what I was trying to do with my research. Of course I was on a crusade to liberate human kind with amazing ideas that once unleashed on an unsuspecting world would change international relations and eliminate the resort to the use of force for all time. The wartime code breaker, famed historian of international affairs, official historian of British intelligence in WWII, longest serving master of St John’s College Cambridge, Chaired Professor of History, Head of Faculty, founder of International Studies at Cambridge, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, and, so it was rumored, the man HM the Queen personally requested to give her briefings on the Falklands War (sending up her personal car and driver to Cambridge to spirit him to the Palace) – sat opposite this wild colonial boy expounding on his dreams of changing the world - and to my everlasting gratitude he did not burst out laughing – indeed he did not even raise an eyebrow. Instead he started out on what must have been a very well worn path and asked me to elaborate!!
After a solid 3 hour discussion, where, like a doctor examining a mysterious illness, he impartially asked question after question, he merely requested I leave my essay with him over the Xmas break and to make an appointment to see him early in the new year.
With no signal as to which way he might lean on the radical suggestions I had put forward, I left no more certain about my future than when I had arrived. The weeks ahead were difficult and tense ones to say the least. I knew I would return to Cambridge to discover my fate.
As I climbed the crooked stairs once again that windy and glum day in January I could not help being a little out of sorts – the same time 12 months ago I was drinking and singing happily with my mates at the Jazz in the Park booze-up as part of the annual festival of Sydney – now here I was in wintry England climbing the scaffold about to see the academic hangman.
We conversed for nearly 5 hours about the issues underpinning the idea I had rashly put forward. Sir Harry sitting in his oversized chair, arms outstretched, leaning from side to side to illustrate the balance of power, never letting on what he was thinking. Even in old age his eyes sparkled with intelligence, he clearly loved his work, the world of ideas and the telling of a good story. At the end of this marathon I quite simply had no idea what his verdict would be. Would I be able to stay on and complete the second and third years of a PhD or would I be politely advised that I would be better off spending time elsewhere.
Indeed as he was shuffling me out the door I had to ask him point blank in my abrupt Australian way whether or not I should continue with my research – not realizing (largely out of fear) of course that he would not have bothered with such a meeting if he were not committed to lending his assistance – he responded with a characteristically deadpan “I think you have a story here, my boy”.
My gratitude turned to elation when he asked me whether I would like him to be my supervisor. I did the polite thing and said that I could not impose myself on his retirement – all the time thinking how incredibly lucky I was that he even offered and trying hard not to sound too sincere in my polite rejection of his offer. After a nano second of hesitation to give him yet another chance to get off the hook, I quickly accepted his great and kind offer.
Where others with ½ of his experience and wisdom have chosen to be rude, disinterested, or threatened by younger members of their profession, Sir Harry never faltered in hearing out harebrained schemes then very courteously and patiently pointing the transgressor towards enlightenment merely by suggesting alternative view points or readings.
I never once left his rooms with anything less than a refocused and enhanced desire for learning coupled with the elation that comes with spending time with someone of Sir Harry’s singularly unique abilities and character. I cherished every moment I spent with him – I was aware even at the time of how incredibly fortunate I was to sit at his feet and have the opportunity to talk to him one on one for hours at a time. I know of a fellow student who had a huge picture of Sir Harry on his study wall with the word “God” inscribed below it – no one ever challenged that obviously hyperbolic but nevertheless well meant accolade. Harry himself would have been appalled had he seen such idolatry – he was such a self-effacing, charming, urbane, and witty man completely free of any pretension whatsoever.
I will never forget him. His life as much as his work was his message – he was a national hero in war and a leader of men and ideas in peace.