In Memoriam: Jeff Guy
It seems that I’ve reached the age when many of my contemporaries are dying, or thinking of doing so. On Tuesday I was talking to a friend who was speaking of this as the last summer, or perhaps the penultimate one. And on Wednesday I learned of the death of Jeff Guy, the historian, from friends on Facebook. I suppose that is one of the reasons I stay on Facebook, for where else would one learn of such things?
I last saw Jeff Guy about 13 years ago, when he asked me to help one of his Masters’ students, Thami Sibiya, with a project. After our discussions I sat in on one of Jeff’s classes, which I enjoyed very much, and we went to a jazz session at the univerity cafeteria, which was also very enjoyable. We said we must keep in touch, which we did a bit by e-mail, and then lost touch again. So how would I have known that Jeff had died if it weren’t for Facebook, and learning about it from mutual friends?
For those who never knew him (and even for those who did) there’s an obituary here, and no doubt there will be more over the next few days, so I won’t try to compete by tryinbg to rehash his life story, but just say a few things about how I remember him.
We were fellow students at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg (UNP as it was known in those days) in the mid-1960s, and attended the same History I and Philosophy I classes. So perhaps I could say I witnessed a great historian in the making, not that I knew it at the time, of course.
One of the most memorable things from that time was when the philosophy lecturer, a Mr Mecurio, did not turn up for a class one day. As I wrote in my diary (20 March 1964):
Mr Mercurio did not come to the philosophy lecture today. Yesterday he had talked about Hobbes’s conception of freedom as being the absence of external impediments, and discussed freedom in general. He discussed the libertarian and determinist arguments, and then said that neither could be proved, but while it is possible that we are not free, it would be illogical to assert it. To say “I am not free” would be invalid even if it were true.
So as he did not come, we continued the argument. Jeff Guy, a determinist, said, “Can you imagine an event or action that was not caused?” I think he is a bit of a Marxist, having come under the influence of Saul Bastomsky and Co, so we sat around discussing it, and trying to imagine an uncaused action or event, or the circumstances in which such a thing could take place.
I tended to the libertarian side of the argument myself, so disagreed with Jeff on that occasion, but discussions with him were never boring, even if one disagreed with him, it was always stimulating, and the class without the lecturer was more interesting, and we probably learned more from it, than if the lecturer had turned up, thanks in no small measure to Jeff Guy. And when I attended one of his history classes nearly fifty years later, there was the same spark, the same stimulation of interest in the students. Jeff Guy was not merely a historian, he was a trainer of historians, and able to stimulate in his students a love of history.
In the years in between I never saw him, though I read several of his books, and, as on the occasion of that classroom discussion, they were always interesting, even when one disagreed with him. And when we finally did meet again, it was as easy as taking up a conversation interrupted yesterday — not about determinism versis libertarianism, but about the history of Natal and Zululand.
I don’t think Thami Sibiya ever did finish his MA, or at least not on that topic. It was about an organisation called Iso loMuzi, formed at a place called Makhalafukwe in Melmoth, Zululand, in the 1980s. Since he did not publish it, I wrote up the material I gave to him, and posted it on ScribD here, if anyone is interested in reading about it. And that I wrote it up at all was probably stimulated by Jeff Guy.
So I will remember Jeff for discussions about libertianism and determinism, but even more for the simple pleasure of drinking beer and listening to jazz from the Paul Koko Quartet, and I wish we could have done that more.