Memorial: Ben Colburn

21 June 2020


My dear friend. How sad I am that you have died. My diary for this weekend has ‘Hugh’ written in it: we had planned that I would visit you after my work at the 1B exam board this year. Looking back I see that the last time we saw each other was exactly a year ago, on the same occasion. It is a nice memory. We had a meal together on King’s Parade, then sat chatting over a bottle of Maccallum in your gold-and-terracotta sitting room for several hours. Even at eighty your stamina for conversation (about philosophy, about theatre, about our mutual friends, about How To Get Things Done) was greater than mine, and it was eventually me that cut the conversation short to head to bed. What a lot of wonderful conversations we had in that room.

We first met in 2003, when I was still an undergraduate. I had done a little clerical work for your conference marking Frank Ramsey’s centenary. We had a drink together afterwards, and swiftly became fast friends. What a gift for friendship you had, Hugh! You were kind and loyal, always, to me and to so many others. It is hard to think of you living your last few months through this time of lockdown. You should have been surrounded by boundless activity and all your friends, who loved you very much.

I am so grateful for our friendship, and for what I have learned from you. Some of it was philosophical. I can see the places in my own writings where I benefited from our discussions. You had the engineer’s knack for finding the right tool for the right task. I learned a lot about the craft of philosophy through arguing with you, and seeing you talk and argue with others. I hope that I am as straightforward, respectful and robust as you are.

I learned a lot from you about being effective. You cared about How To Get Things Done, and you didn’t have much patience with the many academic colleagues who thought ‘admin’ was an unimportant distraction from their real concerns. Throughout your career you were serious-minded about running things: as chair of the Faculty Board of Philosophy; as a pro-vice-chancellor for Cambridge; as an elder statesmen for the ADC; as a long-term member and eventual chair of the Analysis Committee; in other domains too. It was always a pleasure to work with you. What fun we had with Mariella Pellegrino creating our 2007 exhibition on the history of the Philosophy Faculty! I remember sitting together to open the reproductions of Keynes’s undergraduate essays we’d ordered from the archives at King’s, and discovering with glee that they were annotated in spiky red pencil by Moore. (‘This is not the point!’ wrote Moore – I hear it in your voice, punctuated with your staccato cough.) A lot of the virtues I seek in colleagues, and which I try to live up to myself, I learned to value from you: toughness, fairness, realism, sympathy, effectiveness. When I try to work out How To Get Things Done, I always ask: what would Hugh do? It is painful that I can’t ask you directly, any more.

I will miss our correspondence; our meals; our trips to the theatre; our excursions (to north Norfolk, to Orford, to Stratford, to Chichester, to Loch Lomond); our academic alliances. I will miss your generosity; your intelligence; your wisdom; your company.

My dear friend. I love you very much. Thank you. Goodbye.