Obituary: Robin Bidwell

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The Independent Online
Robin Leonard Bidwell, orientalist: born 25 August 1927; married Margaret Luft (one daughter); died Coney Weston, Suffolk 10 June 1994.

AMONG Robin Bidwell's friends, shocked at his sudden death, the feeling persists that his were under-used and too little recognised talents, of which the memorial comprises over a dozen publications. These may not be anybody's everyday reading, but to Bidwell's Guide to Government Ministers (1973) and Guide to African Ministers (1978) and perhaps Currency Conversion Tables: a hundred years of change (1970), doubtless professionals will refer. Then there are his introductions, sharp, to the point, written with a characteristic verve, but no garrulity, to books like The Affairs of Arabia 1905-06 (1971) and The Affairs of Kuwait 1896-1905 (1971) and Arabian Gulf Intelligence (1985), Arabian Personalities of the early Twentieth Century (1986) and the Bulletin of the Arab Bureau in Cairo 1916-19 (1986); and his Morocco under Colonial Rule (1973) and a work cognoscenti much appreciated on its publication, The Two Yemens (1983).

Students who attended courses Bidwell gave in the Seventies and Eighties at Cambridge University, where he was Secretary of the Middle East Centre, on Arabian matters, particularly North Africa under the French, and the Gulf, remember him as an amusing teacher. He had that most valuable quality in any teacher, infectious enthusiasm, nicely underpinned by the anecdotes that only one who had and valued human contacts with the Arabian world could produce. He was a scholar. He had a trenchant, shrewdly penetrating mind, but he belonged to that old-fashioned category, the 'private scholar'. It was a pity he lacked the private means a private scholar needs. He never had a fixed academic position.

After service in South Arabia, highly mobile work in the South Arabian Protectorate, on Britain's relinquishment of responsibilities in that area, Bidwell's regular career ended. For some years, before his great friend the late Professor Robert Serjeant, his collaborator on Arabian Studies (published in eight volumes, 1974-90), brought him to Cambridge, he was to be met in strange places in the Middle East and beyond, travelling for the Oxford University Press. Wherever he was met, he was always the same rather Toby-Belch-like stout, convivial Bidwell, his only complaint lack of beer and, apparently, his chief delight the sharing, when beer was available, in imbibing it with friends. On such occasions they would be enchanted by lively talk and a generous spirit. A congeniality that, in the days before he was eventually most happily married and a father, concealed not only the incisive intellect, but personal sadness.

Those were the days when, the whisky bottle empty at the end of an evening, he would hug it explaining that, the bottle warmed, the drops left would congeal to provide one last taste. He would also tell stories of, it must be thought, outrageous activities as an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was among those who owed so much to the benign presence of Mgr Alfred Gilbey, the university Catholic chaplain. One of Bidwell's notorious exploits consisted in faking letters from a non-existent 'monk' of Downside Abbey, Bidwell's old school, written to distinguished Anglicans concerning, in terms as witty as they were tart, their theological positions. Whatever the wit of the Bidwellian fake letters might have been, the funniness is supposed chiefly to have lain in the seriousness with which they were painstakingly answered by the eminent personages they addressed.

Bidwell's pranks have to be seen as part of his nowadays outmoded eccentricity, which probably contributed to his talents being less appreciated than they might have been. This most undisdainful man gave the impression of being disdainful of the sensitivities and, above all, sense of responsibility of those in authority. Consequently he seemed perverse and difficult to pin down. He was himself completely unselfconscious, which probably made him less conscious of the feelings and requirements of others. Appreciation of him was not encouraged and a capacity for careful work obscured, latterly perhaps by undisclosed illness, but generally by his inability to truckle. His loss is deeply lamented by those tolerant enough to have sought and found his essential, but all too often somewhat aristocratically hidden goodness. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and daughter, Leila, the ultimate joys of his life.

(Photograph omitted)

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