Reminiscences of Sir Harold Bailey

Delivered at his Funeral Service
Cambridge Crematorium

It was thanks to Bob Coleman that I first heard of, and came to know, Sir Harold exactly 23 years ago. Seeking advice on which language it would be appropriate for me to contrast with Greek for a prospective Ph.D., I wrote to request a meeting. The reply is dated 28 January 1973, inviting me either to arrange a visit for coffee or tea or just to pop in. As it transpired, we were immediate neighbours: I was living in lodgings at 7, Chaucer Road, whilst Sir Harold had a certain amount of space left for living or restricted entertainment in his Southacre flat at the bottom of my back-garden. A path connecting Chaucer and Latham roads ran beside this same garden, and so, a nervous Classics' postgraduate wondering what to expect from so eminent a scholar, I just popped round...

It soon became obvious that I need have had no apprehensions about making the visit, for I was treated with that charm and total lack of self-importance which was Sir Harold's natural style and which surely made such a striking and immediate impression on all who met him. On the strength of his advice, I finally settled on Classical Armenian, for we restricted our discussions to Indo-European. Informing Sir Harold (over tea!) of my decision, he rose and took a book from the shelves to the right of my chair, passing it to me, saying: 'If you are going to study Armenian, you will also have to learn this'. Opening the book, I was smitten by the beauty of the Georgian script — a moment that was to change my life entirely, as, after reading Armenian texts for the following 2 years, I spent 1975-76 in Tbilisi learning Georgian, studying 3 North Caucasian languages, and marrying an Abkhazian, here today, into the bargain. I eventually submitted a thesis comparing and contrasting not Greek and Armenian but Georgian and Abkhaz and in 1988 came to hold the only academic post in the country for Caucasian languages.

Living next door and seeing him frequently in the fields behind the Leys or Engineering labs, I became a regular visitor to the flat or a lunch-guest at Queens' College. During the course of our conversations I constantly marvelled at the breadth of his knowledge of languages and found myself totting up over the months and years those of which he was clearly master — I gave up after counting 50. Quite often I would interpose a question causing a switch in the information-flow from one language to another, and I observed how he might momentarily pause and look to the ground while, as it were, closing one mental file, storing it away and retrieving another to provide the answer. I recall one day he explained the principles of Chinese writing, drawing the characters (for him) upside-down, as it was easier than struggling over books to sit beside me. Naturally, we spent much time (more as the years went by) discussing the Caucasus, and he was as saddened as I by recent tragic events there. As soon as it was obvious that Iwas serious in my intention to make the Caucasus my life's work, he started to give me whatever duplicates he came across in his collection — I well remember one whole day I spent examining every relevant volume (finding quite a few duplicates!) and reorganising the shelving arrangements shortly before his move to Brooklands House; in later years I was glad to repay the compliment by helping to build up these Caucasian holdings. It was in the flat I first heard of many of the languages and saw examples of them in books heavily annotated or interleaved with additional notes. And it was with Sir Harold that I met my first Caucasian, a Turkish Circassian. With a chance to visit his native village in 1974, I thought I might be unable to fund the trip, but Sir Harold generously offered to pay himself, as he felt it his duty to encourage the subject in every way — in the event I managed to secure backing from St. John's. In Turkey I succeeded in meeting the last speaker of Ubykh (Circassian's sister), the late Tevfik Esenç, who kindly recorded a short message for Sir Harold, which naturally gave him great pleasure back in Cambridge — it is published in a volume I dedicated to them both (along with Georges Dumézil) and presented to him in 1989 on his 90th birthday. Having had lessons in Chechen during my first year in Georgia, I once remarked how demanding I found the large number of declensional paradigms the language boasts for its nouns, pronouns, adjectives and numerals. Sir Harold smiled and added: 'But it has real words that I can really get hold of — unlike Circassian', Circassian being the only language he said had ever defeated his efforts to learn it.

A college-fellow of the 'old school', whenever he wished to entertain a lady to lunch, he would not take her onto High Table, preferring the Graduate Centre. As eager to accept invitations as to issue them, he often came to Chaucer Road or, later, Eltisley Avenue. On one occasion, after saying he would come for tea, he found he already had a guest of his own and wrote to say: 'Why don't both of you come here? After all, 3 guests are more interesting than one'. Wishing to meet my parents, who had no formal education to speak of, he quickly found a common topic with my father in their shared experiences of the outback and gave them hospitality them more than once.

We discussed so much over the years, including cases where his views diverged from those of some colleague. I asked once if he intended to write a rebuttal. 'No, I just write my own opinions, and let others decide for themselves', he replied. The most he would say by way of criticism was that so-&-so hadn't fully taken some piece of evidence into consideration — possibly only Sir Harold knew of that other evidence!

Keen as always to hear, as he would say, 'your news', especially after I left Cambridge in 1979 and we had fewer occasions to meet, he strolled with me on one of my flying visits from the north (some time in the early to mid 80s) from Queens' College to the top of Station Road. Whether he had had intimations of mortality I cannot say, but for some reason he told me of the extraordinary chronicle of his life that he had written in verse in a form of Iranian (Sarmatian) that (unless my memory is playing tricks) he suggested might once have been spoken by visitors to these islands, adding words to the effect: 'It just depresses me that there's no way to pass on the body of knowledge I've amassed in my head'. This extinguishing of an incomparable corpus will be saddening many around the world today. But apart from such a purely academic loss there is the personal sorrow we all surely feel at the passing of the gentlest of men and the dearest of friends.

The words Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude about the statue of Newton he could see in Trinity Chapel from his rooms in John's come to mind: 'The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought — alone'. Sir Harold may have been alone for the totality of his own chosen voyage, but we must all be grateful for the honour he did us by allowing us the privilege of sailing some of the way with him, inspiring us, and enriching our lives in the process. In my own case, he was responsible, as I told him on his last birthday, for the direction my life took after 1973. But his gift was not only a purpose in life but out of that purpose a family and a career — for all of these I shall be forever grateful.

Quick Links


SOAS, University of London Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG.

  • Tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4332

You are here: Home Articles Miscellaneous Reminiscences of Sir Harold Bailey