Julian's upcoming departure

By now, I think all of you will know that Julian will be retiring from the LTE group from the end of September. For his ‘take’ on this, see Edgeblog #18 .

More, much more, can and will not doubt be said on this theme, but for now I just want to wish him well in all that comes next.


  • I had been saving this story for my graduation, but under the circumstances I think that I might as well tell it now.

    It was my first formal supervision meeting with Julian, and I had arrived rather early at the Ellen Wilkinson building. Julian was still working on an email, and asked me to wait in the front area of his office, where there was a small coffee table and chairs arranged around it. I was not sure if I should sit down (he hadn’t explicitly invited me to do so), so I just stood there studying the layout of the room and the decor, trying to make inferences about the man behind the name. The most prominent feature on the right hand wall was a large landscape painting showing a farmer ploughing and a couple of boats sailing into a bright sunset. Everyday life; business going on as usual.

    File:Bruegel, Pieter de Oude - De val van icarus - hi res.jpg

    ‘It’s Bruegel’s Landscape and the Fall of Icarus.‘ Julian’s words interrupted my thinking.

    ‘I can’t see Icarus anywhere’, I remarked, ‘Is that the point Bruegel’s making?’

    Julian, who was now standing beside me, pointed at a pair of legs flapping in the sea behind one of the boats, a tiny detail in the rich landscape. ‘You are a very perceptive young man‘, he smiled. He must have been very pleased, because he had never praised me in such terms before, nor would he do so again. He went on to say that he was fascinated by the Icarus myth, the story of the boy whose father crafted wax wings, and who used them against his father’s advice to soar close to the sun, only to plummet to a watery grave when the wax that held his wings together melted.

    We then went on to talk about my ideas for my PhD study and the practicalities of the research training programme. But at the back of my head, I was still processing this exchange: Was Julian trying to deliver a message? Perhaps it was a warning against hubris, immodesty: he may have been telling me not to get over-confident just because I was starting a PhD. Or maybe he was directing my attention to Bruegel’s point: personal tragedy or individual greatness rarely register in the grand scheme of things. Was this a veiled comment about how doing a PhD relates to life? And if so, what’s important and what’s mundane? Or could the story be an allegory about growing my own wings rather than relying on wax wings bestowed by others?

    Over time, I came to develop an even more elaborate interpretation of the Icarus symbolism and the significance of this exchange, which I think reflects my own way of thinking rather than anything that Julian would have wanted to imply. There will be more propitious moments to develop that interpretation (perhaps when it’s my turn to leave?), but I think that the Julian I came to know over the years would have preferred to focus on the more elemental aspects of the Icarus myth: A mortal, soaring in the skies; a youth, at the apex of magnificence, striken down; tragedy, met with indifference; an entire universe that violates expectation and defies understanding. Julian is fond of Zen quotations, so here’s one I like, the provenance of which sadly escapes my memory: ‘if you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are’. The change, if I must spell it out, is within.

    Regardless of how one chooses to relate to the Icarus myth, the process of relating is one that stretches the limits of what the mind can conceive, bringing awareness of new perspectives, new solutions, and new puzzles on which to ponder. This is the kind of thinking that Julian embodied and the kind of learning that he encouraged, and while I know that the master must eventually step back for the students to grow, I think I speak for more than myself when I say that I will miss having Julian around to unsettle our assumptions.

  • Magda Rostron

    I will join Richard in wishing Julian all the best in whatever he chooses to do next (and I am sure that he will do plenty) – although I would much prefer it if we didn’t have to face his departure, not for many years to come. I was really sad hearing the news.

    On a brighter side, maybe he will now have the time to come to the TESOL conference in Doha at the beginning of October ?