So at the risk of laboring the point, what a pleasure it is to encounter the enthusiasm and commitment that comes with catching up with past students who have most definitely landed on their feet post-Hurtwood. What do I mean by that? I mean the person that radiates that sense of fulfilment and purpose: the one that jumps out of bed with purpose (albeit metaphorically, I assume in this case, given the joyous presence of an almost 4-year-old son). So, meeting Jack Davy almost 20 years down the line since he left us in 2002, proved both a trip down memory lane, a truly exciting glimpse into the academic world of research and publication, as well as a challenging view on some of the central concerns of our complex and troubled world. Poised to extend the range of his publications in 2022 with ‘We the Oppressors’, described by Quercus as ‘an incendiary text’, he is in line to challenge the fundamental texture of our attitudes towards power and privilege. In it, Jack tells me, we are asked to consider the historical underpinnings of culture and society, and it was both fascinating and illuminating to catch up with him. A short chat seamlessly spread across a couple of hours, as we wrestled in no short measure with many difficult and unsettling issues. Illuminating and provocative? You bet – though we did find time catch up on life, Hurtwood, the universe and everything.
So where to start? Jack beats a swift path through initial and immediate experience, post school, of working on a market stall for almost a year in order to fund study and life, travel, including the amazing South America, and ultimately off to Warwick University and a ‘brilliant degree’ (which sadly no longer exists) in Comparative American Studies. Following a year living in Canada, he came back to complete a Masters at UCL in Museum Studies, landing along the way a prestigious internship with the British Museum no less, where in various capacities, he stayed for the next 10 years. In spite of challengingly low pay, the range of work was incredibly interesting, ranging from managing collections, dealing with exhibitions, and transporting artefacts all over the world, which generally meant spending at least one week a month abroad. Clearly there are many tales to be told here, not least the challenges of moving priceless Egyptian mummies halfway round the world to Australia. This remains an abiding memory, and not necessarily for the right reasons: no beans will be spilled here however: some mysteries must remain. Enough to say there was clearly no time to be bored, and Jack was having a great time.
In his latter days at the Museum he earned his PhD in anthropology at UCL, and this facilitated the deeper dive (Jack’s words) into the relationship between history, art, human behavior and power. His study of the Indigenous people of the Pacific coast took him to interesting evidence. It had already become clear that artefacts within the British Museum’s collections had attracted the specific interest of the Native peoples themselves, who, in the absence of artefacts and records of their own traditions and history, which had been denied them, were seeking the only remaining evidence that the colonial settlers had permitted. This took the form of miniaturized versions for white tourism; these were heavily coded with symbolic detail, recording and preserving both their past achievements and values, as well as their hopeful investment in future survival. This formed the substance of his PhD, completed in 2017, and recently published in 2021 as ‘So Much More than Art’. This sets out to extend the analysis of colonial encroachment and its ongoing outcomes beyond the primarily academic world, as well as laying the foundations of a broader cultural analysis of the pursuit of empire and power.
With a doctorate in the bag, Jack then moved to the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill where he spent a busy couple of years as part of the design team for the World Galleries, moving ultimately on to the University of East Anglia as a Senior Researcher. Here he extended his involvement in evaluating and investigating the process by which Native peoples were seeking illumination about their heritage, exploring how this had been symbolically and surreptitiously embedded within the ‘gifts’ of their ancestors to museums. His book ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ was published by Cambridge University Press this summer, drawing on this work and setting about clarifying this outcome of colonial power.
It was in 2020, however, with the extremes of Covid and lockdown that the seeds of the upcoming book took hold, a text that would openly challenge the status quo. Jack is clearly fully engaged. What needs to be considered more honestly he tells me, is the relationship between our colonial history and the social and political consequences of these in our collective lives today. He slowly began to shape the question: why, without deliberate or evil intent, do we largely conform to a system that is unfair at best, and oppressive and exploitative at worst? He uses the analogy of the profound social problem of homelessness and how it was proved in the initial days of Covid that we could deal with it. The streets were cleared with speed, to wide acclaim and pride. Yet as the immediate health threat recedes, the old problems re-emerge: we seem not to have the collective will for a sustained solution. The lynch pin of his argument is the need for collective acceptance of responsibility to drive forward change. Jack is articulate and passionate in his analysis: our greatest fear is anarchy, that terrifying slide into destructive barbarism which seems inevitable without law or accountability. His arguments and references are balanced with evidence both historical and imaginative. The aim of his book is to enlarge understanding, to garner real attention to the profound problems of unfairness and the ‘notions of untruth’ in our world, and our collective involvement in this. The desired outcome is to produce a muscular liberal counterpoint that can accept what he refers to as ‘the bow wave of mercantile capitalism, crippling debt’ and to offer solutions. There is impressive clarity of thought and purpose in his explanation, as well a realistic rhetoric: his hope is to invite us all to think more pragmatically about what ‘real people can actually do’ in a troubled world, and it makes immediate sense to invite him to argue this point with our present body of students.
Jack is clearly a busy man: with so many texts in the mix, as well as his involvement with universities, museums and institutions various. Lecture tours, writing, publishers, teaching: time to let him get on with his working day. But first some Hurtwood memories? Jack is generous in his praise of a school that provided him, for the first time he claims, with freedom and ‘the amazing opportunity to do anything.’ Really? What about all the pressure that we teachers maintain to get those great results, the ones that earned his place at Warwick? His memory it positive: he was still left with time for plenty of fun, and of course rule-breaking. I shall as ever maintain radio silence, although I know, shall we say, a little more about boarding life at Peaslake House. Hurtwood also consolidated that with personal development, comes a consequent personal responsibility. Studying History, English and Theatre, Jack remembers his teachers Jackie, Jaqueline and Hugo with affection and gratitude. I had the privilege of introducing him to the writer Joseph Conrad in the Advanced English classes (did he ever give me back my copy of Heart of Darkness? He did, he reassures me, with a thank-you note!) We move tangentially and swap haunting memories of 9/11: live images on the mezzanine tv of the second plane hitting, the jumpers, the shock. He comes back however again to inspirational brilliance of Jackie’s teaching, and how in the wake of this collective moment of history itself, classes were alive with explorations and discussion. His time with us was ‘important and meaningful’; he loved the ‘wider stuff’ that Wednesday afternoons offered and made a valuable group of friends.
Time for us both to get on with the day, but first, does he have any specific advice to our students today as they peer into their futures, trying to see who they will become? His response is instant and as passionate as you would expect from someone who is making his mark in the world through tough clear-eyed and unsentimental analysis of the wider world. In terms of degree study, ‘Do something that you really want to do, something that you’re going to enjoy.’ Don’t be guided by what others think you ‘ought’ to do, by what you might earn, but by what really interests you. Visit the university, the campus, the town: get the feel of the place, make sure you feel you could be happy there. He adds that if you find the process ultimately ‘hard, remember, it’s supposed to be hard.’ What great pocket wisdom and what a pleasure it has been to catch up with Jack: his integrity and intelligence shine out like a beacon. His considered reflections on both his school days with us and the need for a more inclusive and affirmative social and cultural way forward have been impressive. Unsurprisingly almost his last words spill into more advice to students. Follow what you care about, what excites you, he offers, because ‘doing what you enjoy is the best way to do it really well.’ I get the impression that this is the shaping mantra of his own life. Thanks for sharing some time with us Jack – I for one cannot wait to read your new book. Provocative and incendiary? Go! Go! Go! I say, and thanks for bringing it on home to Hurtwood!