I read for a PhD under Peter’s inimitable supervision at Birkbeck from 2005 until late 2008, at which point I told him that I had to return to Australia to finish the dissertation because the birth of my first child, Phoebe, was imminent. It sounds like I took drastic evasive action to avoid the difficult run-in to the end of the PhD (stories were legion in the Gower Street bunker about Peter’s pernicketiness in the final days, making weary candidates redraft their abstract for the seventh time just days before submission). But in truth those years at Birkbeck were the most enjoyable, provocative and intellectually formative of my life. A huge part of that experience was Peter’s supervision. Of course, I had heard of Peter before coming to Birkbeck, had consumed Mythology and understood something of Modernism, but had no particular sense of him as a supervisor. And academic superstars have often made their names at the expense of those around them (especially graduate students and junior colleagues) rather than with and through them. Not so, I learnt, with Peter, whose students always came first.
Making the choice to come to Birkbeck and the join the intellectual community that Peter had gathered around the famous canoe in his office and that convened every fortnight to read ‘Force of Law’ or ‘Preface to Transgression’ turned out to be a very lucky, and defining, choice. Many of the reflections on Peter focus on his generosity as a supervisor. He was generous with his time and with his and Shelby’s house and garden. He was generous in his constant regard for whether his students had enough money or were eating properly. But most of all he was generous in his intellectual engagement with his students. He took us seriously as scholars and offered incisive critiques of our work, but these critiques were delivered in such an uplifting way as to make you feel that you could rise to the challenge. I still remember receiving the tell-tale brown envelope through the mailbox in my south London home, containing a draft chapter with handwritten numbers scrawled down the margin, to which a corresponding email would emerge in my inbox:
I have read your draft and feel I must not delay in writing to say how happy I am to be working on something that is so erudite and so engaging – a very rare combination indeed. And such a stunning range of reference. You are laying the foundation for what will be a great thesis. You must not be concerned about what will be a fairly large number of comments on my part.
‘A fairly large number of comments,’ was a rare moment of truthfulness on his part. Often he would preface the email with the ridiculous assertation that the coming engagement (which contained page after page of critique, suggested revision, and questions) amounted merely to ‘matters of presentation’ or were ‘picayune’ in nature (one of my favourite words, learnt from Peter). His engagement as a whole was never picayune. Sometimes it did indeed start in the weeds (‘23.8. [meaning, 8/10ths of the way down page 23 of your hapless draft] Strictly, a reference would be needed for the quotation running in the text from Ewald, but this could be got around by making the stop at the end of this sentence into a semi colon’) but then ascended to things like ‘25.8. At the end of this marvellous chapter, I am just left wondering a bit about governmentality and the state….’. And it went on for pages, and pages, and pages.
Pretty much everything I have learnt about how to be an academic (how to read generously, how to offer serious criticism so it lands without hurting, how to open up texts and conversations and not close them down) I have learnt from Peter or from people who learnt from him, so wide and extensive and deeply felt was his influence. Of course, I never quite manage to pull it off like Peter did. But that’s not surprising – he was absolutely one of a kind. I will remember and miss him dearly for the rest of my life.
There are many who can offer tributes to and memories of the late Peter Fitzpatrick far better than I can. Although I was a PhD student of his for more than five years, we were never very close, even though we did get on quite well. Conversations I had with fellow PhD students of his made me conclude that he was often most involved and invested in the thesis-writing projects of students who he connected with in a manner that could perhaps be described as intimate. Whenever I agonised over the direction of my PhD and Peter lent his input and support, I often asked myself, “What does Peter see in me, a brash, hot-headed pseudo-activist and semi-scholar from a middle-class Chinese Malaysian background?” The answer I eventually came to was that there was one aspect of my self which Peter could connect with due to his own life journey, namely, the fact of me being a “religious young man.” It was Peter who first saw through and challenged me on the falsity of a phrase I used to bat away the question that often came when I showed familiarity with theological matters: “Are you religious?” We were having lunch with a few others at a cafe at the University of Kent before I was to deliver a paper at a staff seminar there. I gave my usual response when the question was raised by a student I had just met, that is, “I’m residually religious.” Peter immediately responded, “That’s nonsense. You’re saturated with religion!” Although his exclamation shocked me at the time, I came to see that he was, as he often was, absolutely spot-on.
Peter had a very keen eye for the things that lay behind surface appearances. He also had no patience for trends in the contemporary university which he saw as destroying the essence of study, learning, and scholarship. The sense I got from him was that it was of utmost importance to do the thing which was right, no matter what the powers that be had to say about it. In her biographical overview of Peter’s life, Sundhya Pahuja mentions that he left the seminary of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (which he once described to me as the “poor man’s Jesuits”) in the first year of his novitiate “because he was unwilling to accept the prohibition on questioning authority.” Indeed, it would have been difficult for Peter to have lived by the vow of obedience to their superiors which religious have to take. The incident that sealed it for him, he told me, was when the novice master, who thought him too independent-minded, repeatedly interrupted Peter’s task of reading a book aloud during a silent meal by correcting his pronunciation when he was in fact perfectly correct. On a few occasions in the course of supervising me, Peter mentioned Isaiah Berlin’s elucidation of the old maxim about the hedgehog which knows one thing and the fox which knows many. I believe that Peter was a hedgehog par excellance, for in his wide-ranging engagements with a plethora of literature and academic disciplines, behind it all was his signature twinned concepts of determination and responsiveness. His ability to see the applicability of this paradigm for so many different contexts was amazing, although in my case I found that it was difficult for me to be as enthusiastic as he was about how I could extend this key insight in my own thesis, being as I was a hedgehog as well, yet only fumbling towards my own central “life idea.” Nevertheless, his example has helped me accept my own vocation of fidelity to one idea in a time and a world that often seems to worship novelty and variety. I do hope that the monograph which Peter laboured so carefully in his last years to extend his powerful insight to the area of the (secular) theological foundations of modern law will be published posthumously.
I would like to end with one more incident from Peter’s life which he once recounted to me. I had tried to ask what made him part ways with the Roman Catholic faith which he was raised in. His reply included a brief tale. During his years working as a lawyer in London, he used to frequent a particular church for Mass. One day, the officiating priest used a phrase to describe their bishop which struck him as rather odd. His investigations of the racks of books near the entrance revealed a large stack of copies of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which meant that the church was in fact an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Church of England. “All this while I had been getting these ‘Eucharistic highs,'” he exclaimed, “when in fact I was [according to Roman Catholic doctrine] drinking damnation upon myself!” As I reflect upon this story of Peter’s some eight or so years after I heard it, I realise that contained in it was the germ of a critique of the relationship between lived reality and the pretensions of “objective” dogma. I hope I will remember this lesson from the one whom some of us affectionally referred to as “the Father,” even as I appear to be embarking on formal theological studies which may lead me to receive the holy orders that Peter never took up. In leaving the monastery he began a journey in which he found his true vocation in the university, and I am forever grateful to him for gently yet firmly nudging me to search for mine.
Soo Tian Lee