Happy Father’s Day

I’m sorry, but for once I’m going to indulge myself and get personal.  Today is Father’s Day, and my father, Raymond Page,  died in March. He was a unique, interesting and amusing personality and so I’m taking the opportunity to post the obituary I wrote for him (which is otherwise behind a paywall)

Professor Raymond Page

Raymond Page with his first grandchild, Nell. This kindly side of him would come as quite a surprise to those he skewered with his uncompromising intellect..

Raymond Ian Page, who died on 10 March 2012, aged 87, was Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Cambridge, and  Fellow and former Parker Librarian of Corpus Christi College.

In the words of Prof Rene Derolez: “Where would runic studies in the British Isles stand now if it had not been for Ray Page?”  A  rigorous scholar, a fierce critic of  ‘sloppy thinking’  and a prolific writer, the quantity and quality of Professor Page’s scholarship in Anglo-Saxon and Norse studies is matched  by equally significant work on glosses, on manuscripts and on manuscript conservation. Justifying his more critical pronouncements with trenchant quotations from St Paul, Page made it a personal crusade to resist the “insidious” way in which runes are “...touched by the flight from reason so characteristic of our pragmatic, scientific and down-to-earth times.”

Born in Sheffield in 1924, and educated at King Edward VII School,  Page’s  family circumstances meant he left school prematurely. It was fortunate for him – and for twentieth century runic studies – that on discharge from the Navy after the war his ex-serviceman status entitled him to a university education.  After graduating in English from Sheffield, he spent a year working on an MA  in Denmark, and then moved to the University of Nottingham where he gained his doctorate in 1959 whilst working as an assistant lecturer in the Department of English Studies (where in later years he became Special Professor).

In 1962, Page left Nottingham for the University of Cambridge, where he was appointed  lecturer, and later, reader, in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, before becoming  Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1984.  From 1965 he was also Fellow Librarian of Corpus Christi College’s  Parker Library,  the magnificent collection of manuscripts and early printed books  acquired by that snapper-up of unconsidered texts (and former Corpus Master) Archbishop Matthew Parker.

It was said of Ray Page that it was hard to know whether his fame as Parker Librarian eclipsed his status as Elrington and Bosworth Professor, or vice versa. It is certainly true that as Librarian, Page focused his characteristic dislike for woolly thought and actions onto the practicalities of conserving the manuscripts in his care. You could say that he took it personally.  Anxiety to preserve the old materials that framed irreplaceable contents caused him to introduce an entire new ethos of conservation to the college library world. Under his stern eye, the Parker Library became flagship for new manuscript conservation techniques, which ultimately led to the setting up of the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium.

Yet Page’s monograph ‘Matthew Parker and his Books’ (1993) reflected another side to his role as Librarian. Arising from a series of lectures he gave as Sandars Reader in Bibliography,  it brought together Page’s many years of research into Parker’s relationship with his own collection.

Page enjoyed the his work in the Parker Library immensely, and often referred to himself tongue-in-cheek as the “kindly silver haired librarian”. It is only fair to mention  that others referred to him as “that silver-haired master of silver-tongued vituperation.” He rejoiced equally in both titles.

In addition to his university appointments, Page held honorary doctorates at the Universities of Sheffield and Trondheim, and the Dag Strömbäck prize at the Royal Gustav Adolf’s Academy in Uppsala.

After his retirement  in 1991 he continued working on his first love – runes – and was often chauffeured around the British Isles by his devoted wife Elin in search of new inscriptions. On one such trip the pair were stranded overnight on a storm tossed Scottish islet – only avoiding death by exposure through the help of a group of Buddhist monks.  He continued to publish, and brought out  the second edition of his seminal ‘Introduction to English Runes’ to which Page referred with characteristic lack of gravitas as ‘the little red rune book.’

Blessed with a quick tongue, a panoramic frame of reference and a witty and fertile mind (when first shown a digital camera, he responded “C’est magnifique, mais c’est ne pas Daguerre”), Page often used humour to hold the world at arm’s length, saying with Sydney Smith “While others rise by their gravity, I sink by my levity.” His conversation could be exhausting to keep up with, a polyglot patchwork of allusion, quotation and terrible puns, delivered deadpan, but with a sneaky twinkle from bright blue eyes.

And while unwilling to meet pretension with unmerited praise, or accept assertions unchallenged, Page was intrigued by genuine expertise, whatever the field, and had a huge respect for other people’s interests and views, whatever their age or background. Never one to take himself unduly seriously, his private letters tended to have a ‘Hagar the Horrible’ cartoon attached to them.

Despite his fearsome reputation,  Page is remembered as both kindly and generous-spirited  by generations of younger scholars. This intrinsic kindness and consideration became defining characteristics when the last few years of debilitating disease took so many of his other qualities and interests away from him.

Ray Page is survived by his wife, Elin, and two daughters. His only son died young.

Professor Raymond Page, Anglo-Saxonist, runic scholar, and Parker Librarian, was born on 25th September 1924. He died on March 11 2012, aged 87.

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