Sunday, 11 March 2012


I've just heard that Ray Page has died. He was Emeritus Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, the one before the one who was there when I was an undergraduate, and a brilliant scholar of things Norse and Anglo-Saxon, especially runes -- he was the runemeister. He taught people who taught me, but I didn't know him until he was retired. He was also the Librarian of the Parker Library back when this was not a full-time job but something people did as well as being heads of departments, etc. If the two great early modern manuscript librarians were Parker and Cotton, Ray Page lived up to the Parkerian rather than Cottonian attitude, with a bias towards not letting people handle the manuscripts... Consequently he was not loved by art-historians. He was the man behind the setting up of the Conservation Studio at Corpus -- his concern was always for the manuscripts' survival more than for the vanity of scholars.

But I'll mostly remember him as tremendously good company. I first met him properly soon after I finished my PhD. I was working at the Wren Library putting some scanned manuscript-catalogue text into XML, and finishing off a book on calendars. One of my calendar-manuscripts had a runic inscription in it, and in some trepidation I wrote to Professor Page, asking him for his help. At this point all I really knew about him was his reputation as a scary beer-monster -- there were hard drinkers among our lecturers, one in particular, but even he prepared himself seriously for a drinking session with Ray Page. Ray wrote back pointing me at a French publication which dealt with the runic inscription in question (a bizarre invocation of Thor to deal with blood-pus demons, not at all the sort of text you'd expect to find at the monastery of Christ Church Canterbury in the late eleventh century). He also invited me to dine with him at Corpus Christi.

Occasionally Corpus has wine-tastings before the evening meal, and this was one of those times. We tasted 16 wines before dinner. After dinner we went to Combination. When the port came round I poured myself a glass with perhaps a centimetre of clear air at the top. "Half a glass, half a glass", Ray growled at me, explaining that it wasn't really a full glass until you could see the miniscus protruding slightly above the rim. (I noticed later that although his hands sometimes shook a little with age, this did not affect him when raising a full glass of port to his mouth -- then they were rock-steady.) I had three glasses of port. Good port is so delicious, and so different from bad port, and I've only ever drunk good port after Cambridge dinners.

(Also on this occasion I met a man called Geoffrey Styler, who told me about a recent party he'd had for the eightieth anniversary of his first ever piano lesson.)

As combination drew to a close, Ray asked me if I liked beer. I said that although I like beer I find the sheer volume of it hard to handle, and prefer whiskey. "Ah, whiskey!" he said, and invited me to the room, I forget its name, dedicated to the use of retired fellows. In the cupboard there he had some silver quaichs, and a large box of the sort used to conserve medieval manuscripts. It had been made for him by one of the great conservator-binders, maybe Nicholas Pickwoad, and inside it was fitted out in velvet to hold a bottle of Jura whiskey. On the spine where the title should be it had "The Runes of Jura" in stamped lettering. "Let us consult the runes of Jura", said Ray Page, and so we did.

By this point my mind was a little hazy. It was not at its sharpest. We talked about books mostly, I think, and he tested me on quotations, something which I didn't mind in the least because I caught them all, except one from Hamlet. You don't often meet people who have read the same sort of things as you, even the obscure things like The Wallet of Kai Lung and Lavengro. He was much better read than me; he was of the type of scholar for whom being well-read in general was part of having an active mind. I'm not well-read in an abstract sense, but I've read more than most people I meet, and being able to discuss books like that seemed like the most tremendous luxury to me. It still does.

I was tired after finishing my PhD, tremendously tired, and it took me a good few months to recover. That evening was the most I had enjoyed myself for ages, and a sort of illustration of old-style Cambridge at its best. Working out, as I stumbled home in an alcoholic haze, that Ray was exactly three times my age (26 to 78) I found myself wondering if he had any available grandsons... I made it into work the next morning despite my tremendous hangover.

A couple of years later when I was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at Corpus Ray sent me a note saying how rare it was for the fellowship to make such a good decision, and at one of my first evenings dining in caused tremendous offence to a visiting manuscript scholar by introducing me to her as "A real manuscript scholar". I think he had been pretty fearsome in his younger years, but he was always very kind to me. He occasionally asked me to read some article he was writing on Parker's manuscripts, and they were tremendously refreshing, the best sort of scholarship, the kind that eschews academicy nonsense for clear, erudite commonsense. He had a great sense of humour, a very dry Scandinavian sense, the sort that does not involves laughing or smiling. "You might call that a beautifully rounded argument", he would say with exaggerated politeness -- meaning that it was circular. He got testy if the port stopped at combination, and would talk loudly about the Bishop of Norwich until it moved again. He insisted that the correct loyal toast was not "The Queen" but "The Church and Queen". And one of my favourite stories about him I am not going to put here, even though very few people read this blog, because of its potential to cause an international incident.

It's not a hundred percent accurate to say that I'll miss him, because he hadn't been quite himself for the last few years as old age caught up with him, and I missed him then. But from a selfish point of view, I do wish there were other people like him. But there just aren't; he was more than usually unique.


  1. Thanks for this, Rebecca. I remember Ray for his wonderfully grumpy comments at college meetings (and his good sense during the Troubles) and for his kindly growls at the kids when we'd pass him along Silver Street. Oh, and for his way with a mobility scooter. His pencil portrait in the Green MacCurdy room captures him well, I think, even though he was much older when I knew him.

  2. His tetchy suggestion that the arguing parties should just go to the pub together had quite a lot of sense to it...

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this, Rebecca. I didn't really know Ray very well at all, but I have many fond memories of him (from him propping up the bar of a lunchtime when I was an undergrad, wearing his runic jumper, to him spending ages entertaining Ishbel when she was very small at a garden party one summer).

  5. Hi Juliet, I deleted your first comment because you'd posted it twice, and now it looks like you wrote something to which I objected... Sorry about that!

  6. As Ray's elder daughter (and mother of his only grandson, currently 16) I'd like to thank you for the above piece which encapsulates so much of Ray's charm and quirks - and the extraordinary kindness, fun and bonhomie that lurked under a sometimes forbidding exterior. The description of him as a scary beer-monster is one I will treasure and not significantly disagree with.

    I'm really glad you mentioned the quotations. Ray really was the most widely-read person I've ever come across. Today I sat beside him, wondering who in the whole wide world I would ever be able to exchange quotes with now...

  7. Dear Rebecca
    This has amused me and made me proud in equal measure. Thank you so much for your beautiful words, I think they capture my grandfather brilliantly. If you have any stories not quite so appropriate for public consumption I would relish the chance to hear them!

    FYI my brother is young and single...if only 16.

  8. Thank you, Rebecca. Ray never actively tested the breadth of my reading or my drinking stamina, probably knowing he would be disappointed, but was always very kind to me. I remember some seriously humorous exchanges with him over lunch and at the porter's lodge and his wonderful contributions to some depressing meetings.