Two Great Losses

Perry Anderson in New Left Review:

Since the composition of the last issue of the journal, nlr has lost the two most gifted political writers to have ignited its pages over the years, Tom Nairn and Mike Davis. Both were magnitudes whose life and work extended far beyond this journal, requiring consideration by others on another scale. Only that portion of what they achieved which is connected with nlr, not to be exaggerated, and some of the differences between them, are in place here. Death claimed them close together. Did they touch in any other respect? Each was a mind so entirely original that, virtually by definition, it would seem they had little in common. Generation, class, nationality, formation, temperament—all set them quite radically apart. Tom was fourteen years older, born in a small Scottish village, his father headmaster of a nearby school. A natural polymath, he won a privileged education, first in an art college, then studying philosophy at two universities in Britain—Edinburgh and Oxford—thereafter spending time at the apex of higher education in Italy, the Scuola Normale in Pisa, where he acquired fluent Italian.

Returning to England in the early sixties, he earned post-graduate awards and lectured in an art college in London. There he supported the student revolt of 1968, and was dismissed for doing so. For a quarter of a century he never had a teaching job again, and for the rest of his life was always in difficult straits, often in poverty, scraping a nomadic living in places as remote from each other as Amsterdam, Washington, Prague, and finally Melbourne—where, in his seventies, he found employment for a decade in a university ten thousand miles away from where he lived in West Lothian. A Scot to whom conventional English forms of conviviality were foreign in ways that could be mistaken for shyness, he was generally quiet and reserved, and avoided publicity. He could be fierce in print, his mockery scalding; yet he was warm and gentle as a person. Italian released the high spirits in him.

More here.