CLIVE BARNETT, RIP

When I heard the geographer Clive Barnett had passed away on Christmas Eve, it took me a while to reconcile that it was the Clive Barnett who’d died, the Clive Barnett I hadn’t seen for many years yet whom I still considered one of my closest friends. I can’t believe Clive has gone. At Oxford, for three years—late ’80s/early ’90s—I’d shared with him some of the happiest moments of my life. We were doing our DPhils together, under David Harvey’s watch, became inseparable, like brothers, living in rooms next door to one another, drinking and eating together, arguing together, staying up all night together, reading the same things, almost breathing the same things.

In those days, Clive was a desperately shy lad, with a freshly minted BA from Churchill College, Cambridge. I was almost a decade older, a “mature student” from Liverpool Polytechnic. I always called him “young man”—not condescendingly, more with Joyce’s eponymous Portrait of the Artist in mind. (It was a label I’d still use even in recent email exchanges, when he was a middle-aged prof; he always called me “Andrew,” like only my mother ever did.) Clive was the nearest incarnation I’d seen of Stephen Dedalus: brooding, dressed in black, self-effacing, haughty, aloof, solitary, and very, very brainy. He seemed forever trying to cast off the tradition of the dead generations, shake off the fetters of his provincial East Grinstead upbringing, his middle-class, middle-England background, quietly expressing himself in some mode of life or art as freely and as wholly as he could. It would be a lifelong pursuit, one that would only cease in death, last week.

Even back then Clive had seemingly read everything, and already bore the hallmarks of the great intellectual he’d become. We were chalk and cheese, hailing from very different backgrounds, having radically different temperaments. He, gentle and softly spoken, subtly ironic; me, loud and brash, rather heavy-handed; he, into the intricacies of theory, into its deconstruction; me, wielding theory as practice, like a sledgehammer. Yet we bonded around our love affair over knowledge, with its quest, come what may, and that we were both Harvey boys and proud of it. David became our centre of gravity, the subject matter of much of our nocturnal conversations, of our tenacious passions. In fact, our lives revolved around David, and into this orbit we also had the privilege of a young Erik Swyngedouw, then a junior lecturer, a dear friend who mingled with us graduate students as if he were still one. Soon Adrian Passmore, Michael Samers, and Argyro Loukaki would enter the Harvey fray, a member’s club headquartered at the Kings Arms or Bookbinders in Jericho.

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Clive’s interests were so diverse, so cross-discipline, that it was tough for him to narrow them down into a singular project like a doctorate. His mind worked otherwise; it always would. In Geography, though, he found his space, someplace where his mind didn’t really need a discipline, could flourish in all its expansive grandeur. As students, I wanted to master Marxist urban theory, and wrote a thesis on it relatively quickly; Clive patiently sought some purer truth, something even vaster for which nobody ever received a PhD. That’s probably why he took so long finishing up, having to box up his universality into something particular. I remember his generosity the day I had my viva, the day I got my DPhil. We spent the whole evening in his room, slowly drinking a bottle of whiskey, celebrating throughout the night, and afterwards, just as the sun rose, strolling across a ghostly Port Meadow at dawn. He was as thrilled as I was that I’d finished.

But there was sadness, too, a sadness then of knowing that we both had to move on, had to go off in different directions. Clive embraced academia in a way I never could. He’d found his safe harbour, as a dedicated teacher and globally respected scholar, a space from which he could sail his ships. Though I still remember Clive’s early career, how his brilliantly restless mind was mistrusted by universities. For several years, I watched him struggle to find a steady job, to convert his knowledge into a saleable product. He hustled around temporary positions, before landing at The Open University and later Exeter, becoming the Professor he’d always secretly wanted to be. What else could he do anyway? he used to say, oh so long ago. And now that voice, that quiet whisper I can still hear in my mind’s ear, utters no more wisdom. I’ll miss his piercing insights, his scathing diatribes, his wry humour. I’ll miss a presence I rarely saw yet knew loomed large and touched many people. I am very sorry, young man, that we never stayed in closer contact.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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5 Responses to CLIVE BARNETT, RIP

  1. A beautifully honest tribute to Clive
    – Michael Samers

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  2. Robert Mayhew says:

    Thank you – I was obviously in Oxford at the same time but very much not one of the “Harvey boys”. But what a time and what intellectual energy the group you list generated. You capture the moment perfectly!

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  3. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Andy Merrifield’s tribute to Clive Barnett

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  4. Robina Mohammad says:

    Thanks Andy for these insights. Like you I hadn’t seen or spoken to Clive in years but his impact on me was so profound that I have felt his loss like as if we still saw each other and spoke most days. Clive’s arrived at Reading where I was just starting my second year as an undergraduate, a mature student who really wanted to understand the world and how we came to perceive it. It was an exciting time in geography, I was buzzing, high on Harvey’s “Condition if Postmodernity” and it was Clive who took my learning up by levels I hadn’t even imagined hitherto. I saw him as my mentor whose guidance really took my work to another level. We had great fun too during those years Clive rallied us students together to go and see Doreen Massey give a talk at Portsmouth and Derek Gregory at Southampton. Those were golden times, memories I’ll always cherish. Time goes on and we move on and so I got a call on the 27th December, telling me that Clive had passed away…how incredulous, of course I know that we are all human and we will all go one day but I couldn’t imagine Clive just going like that. Not Clive with so much still to do in this world. I’m totally heartbroken that I’ll never see him again now.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. James D Sidaway says:

    Thanks so much Andy – Clive would sometimes speak so quietly that everyone would struggle to hear. But they would listen very carefully…..invariably the words were wise. Often they were humorous.

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