I’m going to start this post with a kvetch about the two major stories of the week but I’ll keep them very short.
The first concerns the invective of the Israeli Prime Minister delivered—in a room within the Jerusalem District Court—as a warning to the public security system (the police), the prosecution service and the attorney-general as well as the judicial system that he will hesitate at nothing to silence them and render them innocuous—useless, in fact—should they have the temerity to go through what he regards as a sham trial designed by the left-wing, i.e., any persons or organization that disagrees with him, to bring him down and thwart “the will of the the people”.
Although this blog is called PhotoGeoGraphy and was originally put together as a means to allow me to show some of my own photographs, this outlandish performance still provided the photo of the week and it isn’t one of mine. As Bibi was delivering his obloquy, he was surrounded by several senior members of the cabinet from his own party, and other Knesset members and a couple of hangers-on, all of them be-masked and thereby symbolically rendered as quiet as little mice who dare not utter a sound while the mouser speaks lest they be damaged eternally.
His demands included making all the documents in the possession of the prosecution immediately public so that “the people can judge” and that his trial, when it begins in earnest later in the year hearing evidence be broadcast live, once again, so that “the people will be the judges”. Therefore, it seems as if there will be two parallel trials, one conducted in the court and one conducted outside through “friendly and sympathetic” people in the media who will then stoke the fires and bring the mob to the streets. The erdoganization of Israel is well and truly under way.
The other story of the week was, of course, the cummings and goings to Durham and back of the special adviser to the Emperor of the still-just-about United Kingdom who gave a bizarre press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street, sitting there in his shirtsleeves as if he owned the place without a hint of regret or apology for breaking the rules that he himself had help set. And not a word of reproach either from his nominal boss that day or the ones following.
But then something happened on Saturday afternoon. I had a short email from a colleague at the University of Colorado at Boulder which said simply: “In case ye haven’t heard. What a career.” and as I read on, I learned that a man called Ron Johnston had died of a heart attack earlier in the day. For those of us who studied Geography from the late 1960s on, there was no way that you could have missed this nonpareil. Although most of the readers of this blog will never have heard of Ron Johnston, I make no apology and express no regret for writing what follows. It is something I felt I just had to do.
Ron was simply a phenomenon; there’s no other word to describe him. He was born in 1941 in Swindon, Wiltshire, in the West of England. He graduated with a degree in Geography from the University of Manchester in 1962 just as I was starting my degree course at Trinity College Dublin and got a M.A a couple of years later. (He met his wife Rita on an undergraduate field course to Dublin and Killarney.) In 1964, they emigrated to Australia where he worked at Monash University, completing his a PhD on Melbourne’s residential mosaic and in 1967 they moved to the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where he rose through the ranks to a Readership.
He then spent one academic year (1972- 1973) year divided between the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics and returned to New Zealand but the following year was appointed to a chair at the University of Sheffield where he spent 18 years, becoming a Pro-Vice-Chancellor, chairing the university’s main academic planning committee. Then in 1992, he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex, one of the UK’s top social science universities where he stayed for three years, before taking early retirement, having missed teaching and research while being a senior academic administrator, and joining the University of Bristol.
Ron wasn’t a friend of mine; he was hardly even an acquaintance. We met a few times at conferences and I always found him friendly and congenial—and helpful—and with a wonderful sense of humour. I came across him first for the work he had done on residential segregation and then when he published his book with Peter Taylor on the Geography of Elections, I got involved in electoral reform.
But why do we all consider him a phenomenon? Well, it’s very simple. He produced about 50 authored books, about 50 edited books, over 230 book chapters, over 700 articles in refereed journals, innumerable entries in encyclopedias, handbooks and the like, book reviews, review articles and much much more. When you look through his CV and see the number and variety of his collaborators and co-authors, the mind simply boggles.
His output over five and half decades was more than many whole departments have managed throughout their histories! There was a time when, if I had an idea, I would go to the library and try and find out if Ron had already published half a dozen articles and a book on a similar topic before I even started thinking — and sometimes, he had!
He never stopped writing or thinking and he did this, apparently right to the very end. I once asked him how he managed to do it and his response was simple and straightforward. Amongst other things, it was discipline, he said. Up at 4 in the morning, four hours of writing first and then the day began. But then, how else could be have done it? Then I always wondered how he got the time to read and when he managed to do it!
My own direct personal connection with him came down to two two pieces, an article that I wrote at his invitation for Progress in Human Geography, one of the two leading journals with which he had been closely associated over the years and one that he wrote for a special issue of a journal that I was editing.
Over 35 years ago, he asked me if I’d be willing to write an article on the development of human geography in Israel. I was truly flattered and agreed but I was aware enough to realize that it was a double-edged sword in the sense that if I didn’t get it right, I might dent several egos. I decided to play safe and consequently, I set about locating and reading as much material as I could that had been produced by my Israeli colleagues over the years. Rather than stand accused of missing some terribly significant piece of research tucked away in an obscure journal, I requested every academic geographer in Israel to let me have his or her current CV and to my great surprise, over 90 per cent responded positively to my initial request and all but one after a single reminder. The one outstanding was my erstwhile Ph.D supervisor, the late Arieh Shachar of The Hebrew University.
I tried contacting him but to no avail but finally managed to talk to one of his secretaries who told me that he was travelling but would be in Israel over the following weekend and if I telephoned him at home early on a Friday morning he would speak with me. I called at the appointed hour and told him what I was doing, that everyone else had co-operated and that if I failed to have his CV to hand by early the following week, then I would simply spend a couple of hours in the library and what I found there was what I would use. He promised me that he would send it to me and within three days, I had arrived. However, he also managed to tell me that he really couldn’t understand why I and not he had been invited to write this article, for he was really the person best qualified to do it.
Notwithstanding, the article was published as “Not just milk and honey, more a way of life—Israeli human geography since the Six-Day War” and a couple of years later, when Shachar and I both were at LSE for short stays and the article had already been out a couple of years, we had a pleasant chat over lunch during which he told me that he thought I had done a very good job, which was nice to hear. And then, at an Institute of British Geographers Conference in Glasgow in 1990, I found myself sitting on the back seat of a bus next to Ron and decided I’d ask him why he’d invited me of all people to write that particular paper. His answer was very simple: “You’re the only person I could think of who is both an insider and an outsider”, which, I thought, was a pretty fair evaluation of my position within the community of Israeli geographers.
And then about 20 years ago, I was editing a special issue of GeoJournal with Stanley Brunn, an American colleague, on the subject of Geography and Music. Ron offered us a chapter entitled: “A most public of musical performances: the English art of change-ringing”, bell-ringing being the pastime he was absolutely passionate about, a piece he had written several years earlier. (He would travel the length and breadth of Britain to participate in bell-ringing competitions.) I thought that it needed some editing, so I did what editors are supposed to do as a result of which I elicited a comment from Ron complimenting me on the fact that nobody in the previous 20 years had rewritten one of his pieces so thoroughly as I had done on this paper on bell-ringing. As with the invitation to write the “Milk and Honey” article, I regarded that as a more than just a pat on the back.
Like all people who enjoy a reputation out of the ordinary, there are many stories about him. I have two, one absolutely apocryphal, one probably true. The apocryphal one relates to the year he spent at LSE after his sojourn in the Antipodes and before going on to Sheffield. The story went that at the end of each day, before the cleaners came in, certain members of the LSE department would enter his office to rummage through the wastepaper basket to see if there was anything among the stuff he had thrown out that day that was potentially publishable.
The other story is probably true, given the person from whom I heard it. At the University of Toronto, somebody bet him that he couldn’t write a publishable piece on the backs of paper serviettes over lunch while they chatted. Ron wrote and they photocopied what he’d written and lo and behold, it was later published!
He really was an amazing person. You could talk to him about geography, elections, segregation, in fact about anything you wanted. There was absolutely nothing stand-offish about him. He’ll be sorely missed by many people for and thousand and one reasons.