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Robin Clifton: In memoriam

Robin Clifton: a Memoir

We learned this week of the sad death of our former colleague Robin Clifton, one of the founding members of Warwick’s History Department in 1965. Robin was a dedicated teacher, a fine historian, an excellent colleague. and a valued friend. He had a huge appetite for life and lived it to the full, with a phenomenally wide range of interests and expertise. He will be fondly remembered and deeply missed by everyone who knew him.

A proud New Zealander, who didn’t take kindly to anyone labelling him Australian, Robin had earned an MA from Wellington in modern Russian history before coming to England in 1962. At Oxford he worked on a DPhil (with Christopher Hill, at Balliol) on popular anti-Catholicism in Elizabethan and early/mid seventeenth-century England. He later published an article drawn from it in Past and Present, which almost forty years later my students still preferred to anything published subsequently. When Warwick opened its doors to History students in 1965 Robin was part of the tiny group of Founding Fathers, alongside John Hale, E.P. Thompson, Alastair Hennessy, Bill Dusinberre, Michael Mallett and Austin Gough (a modern French historian). Valda Reid, our first secretary, ran the History Office singlehanded, with a multitude of responsibilities that included typing up everyone’s reading lists! The whole University was initially based on the East Site. Year 1’s syllabus was modern history, which Robin was happy to teach, with Thompson teasing him as ‘our young Russian historian’. He then launched a module on ‘English Social History, 1500-1700’, the first such course anywhere in the UK, and a special subject on ‘Radicalism in the English Revolution’. Both proved highly popular, and both ran for decades. For several years he and I ran special subject seminars together, and I had the opportunity to see in action Robin’s huge skill and commitment as an undergraduate teacher. He also designed and taught an advanced option on Local History, and when his interests swung back to the modern period he developed a popular course on ‘War and History’ which was probably his favourite. It focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, with a close study of the Vietnam war. Students appreciated Robin’s demonstrations with old weapons to enliven his lectures, though the police took a different view when they spotted him one day carrying an old firearm onto campus.

Robin’s range as a teacher reflected the breadth of his wider interests. He was knowledgeable on both the Rolling Stones and Richard Wagner, on both biblical history and 20th century international politics. He loved good food, drink, company and conversation, and was a very generous host. In his younger days he was a keen rugger player and always remained a fan. In 1984 Robin published a valuable monograph, The Last Popular Rebellion (on Monmouth and his rebels in 1685), and later co-edited a collection entitled War and Cold War in American Foreign Policy 1942-62, a tribute to his late friend and Warwick colleague Callum MacDonald. But his real love was always undergraduate teaching, sharing his enthusiasm and inspiring the young. He also enjoyed making three videos for Jack Scarisbrick’s ‘Warwick History Videos’ project in the 1980s, aimed primarily at A-Level students. They included one on the English civil war and another on World War II, another reflection of his versatility. They are still available, as DVDs, in the University Library. I have a vivid memory of one scene in which Robin is holding forth to the camera while standing with his head and hands protruding through a pillory. He always loved reading widely, exploring new fields that ranged from ancient history to the contemporary world, and spanned the globe. A combination of ill-health and the pressure to produce regular publications for RAEs and REFs persuaded him to take early retirement in 2000. He and his wife Vivien, who had earlier worked for some years in the History Office, then moved to a lovely and remote spot in mid-Wales. There he enjoyed the leisure to read still more widely, and was also able to pay a lengthy return visit with Vivien to New Zealand.

Today’s universities are a much less welcoming home for academics who are primarily scholars and teachers. Robin Clifton’s life and huge contribution remind us how much they could have to offer.

Bernard Capp