Professor Jerry Cohen

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The Independent Online

It is impossible to imagine Jerry Cohen silenced, writes Carole Angier. His voice was himself – rapid, nasal, slicing through debate like a knife, telling Jewish jokes, imitating other people's voices so perfectly that you were convinced they were in the room with you, years after they had died.

He liked to challenge and mock, especially himself. And most of all he liked to surprise. I remember visiting him in Oxford in the early '60s, when he'd recently arrived from McGill, and was encouraging younger McGill philosophers to follow him. It was summer-time, and the beautiful bay window of his room on Bardwell Road was open to the garden. He made tea, pretending to mock the English ritual, and then it was time for the promised visit to his tutor, Gilbert Ryle. Jerry got up and walked straight out the window.

Years later he came back to Oxford as Chichele Professor. He made endless fun of himself, a Jewish Communist at All Souls, but in fact he knew and loved every stone of the College, and was always the one to show visiting dignitaries around, since no one else had his fund of knowledge.

A few years ago he asked me to Guest Night at All Souls when he was hosting it. It is the host's job to lead the guests from one glorious room to another. Jerry would say "Next course, Comrades," and some of the most distinguished scholars in the world grinned like kids and followed.