Tribute to Professor Christopher Duggan
Grazia De Michele
In June 2005, I was working as an intern at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome. I was not enjoying the experience. One morning, I felt particularly discouraged and started to think about a possible way to escape. I remembered an English scholar, whose article on Italian national identity I had read and appreciated while writing my undergraduate dissertation. I searched for his name on the internet and the picture of a smiling young man came up. I sent him an email asking if there was anything that a student dreaming to become a historian could do in the UK. He replied within a couple of hours offering to speak to me over the phone. In October 2005, I moved to Reading to start my MA followed, in 2006, by a PhD.
Christopher Duggan was a kind, supportive, helpful and friendly supervisor. We had very different approaches to history. Still, he always encouraged me to work on the topics I liked using methodologies that I found stimulating. He gave me the opportunity to do a PhD with a studentship and meet some amazing people, including my husband.
I never called him by his first name. It sounded impolite to my Italian ears. I never expressed my affection to him either. He was such a reserved person. Since he left this world, though, I have taken the habit, whenever I think of him, to say: “Ti voglio bene, Christopher”.
I vividly remember the first time I met Christopher, in 2008. It was also my first time in the UK, and I felt somehow out of my element: even crossing the street was quite an undertaking. Christopher welcomed me in his office with a gentle smile; we talked a little about the history of peasantry in Italy and my PhD project, he was able to reassure and encourage me, especially as far as my English was concerned: there was no reason to be worried, he said, it was ok (it actually wasn’t, but I guess Christopher understood that there was time enough to work on it).
Almost four years later, he welcomed me again in his office right after my viva. I was not at my happiest, and Christopher noticed it. He told me some things and I understood that he knew better than I expected how I felt. I genuinely appreciated it.
Christopher Duggan was the person thanks to whom I was able to spend five years of my life in the UK and grow – not just as a scholar, but as a person. He will be missed.
Ester Lo Biundo
In November 2010 I landed in London for the first time on a research trip to the BBC Written Archives. Back then I was a Master's student in Palermo, but I had been given the great opportunity to do some research abroad for my thesis. On the bus from central Reading to Caversham, where the archive is, I could not help thinking about what that quaint little town looked like. All I knew was that Reading had a famous music festival and a university.
I would have never thought that a year and a half later I would end up sitting in an office at Reading University to discuss the outcomes of that Master's thesis with Christopher Duggan. I was delighted to hear that he was interested in my project and agreed to be my supervisor.
I was even happier to realize, at our first supervisory meeting, that Christopher was not only a great historian but also a humane and empathetic supervisor. I must confess I was nervous and ready to answer all the possible questions about my project and the related literature. I was asked instead whether I had settled in properly, I had nice flatmates or I was coping well with the British weather.
Only after receiving my reassurance, did we start talking about my PhD.
Christopher's advice was always discreet and never patronising. I will miss Christopher's encouraging words terribly, but I strongly believe that his legacy will continue to live in every individual with a genuine passion for history.
Christopher’s role was not just as a supervisor, but also as a mentor; he had a capacity to appreciate and empathize with my individual circumstances and to respond accordingly. A typical supervisory meeting with Christopher would begin with a long session in which he would ensure that I was happy in both my personal and professional life and that I was not pushing myself too hard by studying and working at the same time.
However, Christopher also encouraged me to take on new roles I might never have applied for and present papers at conferences I had previously felt to be too difficult.
In my search for funding, Christopher was tireless in his ongoing support and encouragement, which was a perfect a reflection of his kind and helpful nature. He wrote countless letters of reference and reminded me that in the event that my applications were unsuccessful, that I should nevertheless try to pursue my research.
Christopher always made me feel that my research was important and without his support and mentorship during some difficult periods, I would have left academia by now. I will miss him terribly; but his integrity, attention to truth and humane approach as a historian will continue to act as an inspiration.
I first met Christopher when he interviewed me for a doctoral studentship in 2006. I already knew and admired him as a historian through his published work, but had no idea of the man I would meet: I was struck by his easy charm and his sense of wit and worldliness. The next four years were some of the most memorable of my life, guided so beautifully and effortlessly by Christopher; I often felt grateful that fate had landed me with a supervisor so in tune with my own temperament. His advice was inevitably perfect and after meetings I always came away feeling remarkably positive – he had an uncanny skill of setting me back on track when things went ever so slightly awry. I felt his support and genuine interest in what I was doing. Above all though I so appreciated the concern he showed that I should enjoy that sometimes strange journey toward writing a doctoral thesis, aware that life itself could easily be forgotten along the way.
I cannot envisage Christopher as anything but that charming man of such intellect and graceful manner. I will continue to miss him.