Professor Keith Middlemas: Historian acclaimed for his work on the politics of modern Europe

He was invited to share his insights with Margaret Thatcher, with her eye for a handsome man

In 1970 Keith Middlemas was lecturer in history at the still new Sussex University, with a special interest in European politics. He had already written four books and made his name as a skilful narrator of complex events. He was now asked to write the history of the Cabora Bassa dam project, then nearing completion. Building the dam at a notoriously inaccessible stretch of the Zambezi promised to provide electricity and power for more than the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique. It was the dictator Salazar’s grand project.

The cost was huge, needing international funds and expertise. Anglo-American, the great South African company chaired by Harry Oppenheimer, was vital to success. Work had begun in the 1950s, when more than faith was required. Since 1964 the nascent Frelimo independence movement had added to the natural hazards. There were no written records; most of the story had to be put together from the spoken words of busy men.

It was the sort of challenge that Middlemas enjoyed. Despite discomfort and sometimes danger, he was doing well. Then in April 1974 the “Carnation Revolution” saw Salazar fall; within the year Mozambique became independent. In these crucial months Middlemas, who had talked to all the main players, industrial and political, but was visibly independent, played a critical role as intermediary between the managers of the project, the retreating Portuguese administration and the incoming revolutionaries. The dam was successfully completed in December 1974, and Middlemas’s Cabora Bassa was published the following autumn.

It was a far cry from the Zambezi to the Scottish rivers where the young Middlemas learned his lifelong passion for fly-fishing. He was born at Alnwick in Northumberland, where the family was long established. His father was a solicitor, and Keith’s Northumbrian roots meant much to him. After school at Stowe, he served in the Northumberland Fusiliers, seeing active service in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, his first taste of Africa. By now old for his years and distinguished in appearance, he returned to Pembroke College, Cambridge; the Master, SC Roberts, said, “I never know if I quite live up to his expectations of me.”

A First in History was followed by appointment in 1958 as Clerk in the House of Commons, joining Robert Rhodes James, who became a lifelong friend. Both found time to begin careers as professional writers; together they also learned how government worked at first hand.

Middlemas’s Command the Far Seas (1961) told the history of the German battle-cruisers in the First World War and The Master Builders (1963) that of four men, Brassey, Aird, Cowdray and Norton-Griffiths, who became the first great international engineering contractors. Changing tack he wrote a sympathetic account of The Clydesiders (1965). These books caught the eye of Asa Briggs, first professor of History at the new University of Sussex, and in 1966 Middlemas was invited to join the department. He was in the middle of writing with John Barnes the first full-length life of Baldwin. This appeared in 1969, increasing his reputation. He now took happily to academic life, and to Sussex.

His writing continued on modern history, particularly industrial history. Diplomacy of Illusion (1972) dealt with Britain and Germany, 1937-39, and was followed by a three-volume edition of the diaries of Thomas Jones (1969-72) and by Politics in the Industrial Society (1979). After these came Power and the Party (1980), Industry, Unions and Government (1984), and then his masterpiece, Power, Competition and the State (1986-91), in three volumes covering 1940-61, 1961-74 and 1974-90. His knowledge and opinions of contemporary politics did not escape those actively involved in them, and Middlemas was invited to share both with Margaret Thatcher, with her eye for a handsome man. He enjoyed close connections with those about whom he might write, but took care to avoid closer involvement.

His first loyalty was always to his students at Sussex, where Rhodes James had joined him in 1968. As he rose to become Reader in History at Sussex (1976) and Professor (1986-98), he devoted himself to teaching hundreds of them over more than 30 years. While passing on his wide knowledge of European history, he never let them feel that history was just about the past, and could draw on his own experience to remind them that it was happening now. He took a keen interest in their careers; an encouraging testimonial from him often led to a first job. He was visiting professor at Stanford (1984) and Beijing (1989), and after his retirement, a member of the Conseil de Surveillance, then Chairman, of ESL and Network.

His students also came to share in the other great achievement of Middlemas’s life, the house and garden at West Burton. With a keen eye for the picturesque and a practical knowledge of all the trades involved in building, he transformed both several times. New walls were built, new trees planted, borders and parterres added and remodelled.

He built a gazebo and an oriental kiosk, largely with his own hands; only occasionally employing professional (and student) assistance. He took a keen interest in furniture and pictures, picking up the odd bargain. The local branches of Sotheby’s and Christie’s regularly consulted him; he wrote a book on continental coloured glass, and The Double Market (1975) on the art trade and art thieves.

He was an expert shot, like his father. Like him he represented Britain in Canada in 1958, and was in the English team that won the National Challenge Trophy. He was a sailor all his life, mucking about in boats off the neighbouring South Coast and further afield, and a constant traveller to out-of-the-way parts such as Ethiopia, Bhutan and the Yemen; in Tripoli in Libya he discovered the specialist emporium selling crescents to adorn the domes of mosques; one now adorns the kiosk at West Burton. His last book, As They Really Were (2011), based on lifelike drawings of the citizens high and low of Alnwick in 1831, took him back, with great pleasure, to his roots.

Robert Keith Middlemas, historian: born Alnwick, Northumberland 26 May 1935; married 1958 Susan Mary Tremlett (one son and three daughters; died West Burton, Sussex, 10 July 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'