Tuning Academic Life: In Memory of Carole Keegan

by Les Back

9 May 2018
Originally published in our Old Blog.

The intellectual life of any university is only possible because of the people who administer the practicalities of academia and make things work. These largely uncelebrated colleagues make sure rooms are booked for the next seminar, ensure that visiting speakers have the correct form for their expenses claim or book the flights for a high profile professorial keynote in some faraway place.  More often than not this group of university workers do far more to shape the research culture of any given place than is appreciated.

They support research grant applications, gauge the whims of the funding councils and battle with the finance department for correct information and make sure that the budget balances. No great books would be written or eloquent public pronouncements made from the lectern without them. Carole Keegan did all this important work and much more for staff at the Centre for Urban and Community Research for two decades.  She has left us too soon and many members of staff from Goldsmiths attended her funeral this month on the 2nd May in Maidstone to say goodbye after her long struggle with cancer.

In the days before the funeral, Bridget Ward, her close friend and colleague, said: ‘Carole didn’t make any fuss. She quietly just got on with things always with her wry sense of humour.’ I think we academics probably gave her plenty of comic material. Nevertheless, so many of us benefited from her gentle dependability and good nature. After the sad news of her death many emails of gratitude and appreciation were sent by staff and students.

Often ‘university support staff’ have extraordinary hidden talents. This was true of Carole. She loved literature and music and also walking her dog. But even some of her closest colleagues are still unaware that she was a quite exceptional painter, mostly of oils on canvas. Her paintings are a vivid burst of colour, including portraits of birdlife and the natural landscape. In their collection Saatchi Art described her paintings as: ‘inspired by botanical nature, mythologies, folktales both ancient and modern, and animals.’ One of her works ‘A Walk in the Park’ was used as the inspiration for a dress design for a boutique clothes company. Carole had also written children’s’ stories and a detective story, which we found out only at her funeral.

Carole’s close friend Sue, who gave the eulogy at the funeral, said that they liked to dance to Ry Cooder’s tune Little Sister and do what they called the ‘tea towel dance.’ I knew Carole loved music but was surprised to see a picture of her playing the guitar in the album of photographs of her life that had been compiled for her wake. In the photograph, perhaps taken in her thirties, she is sitting on a chair holding a guitar in her lap with her hand in the shape of a perfect A minor chord. Her partner Robin told us that Carole only knew a few chords but she had an uncanny ability to tune his guitar to perfect pitch. An out of tune guitar will still sound awful even in the hands of a player with the finger dexterity of a virtuoso. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Carole had done a kind of academic equivalent of this for all of us too. She kept things in tune at CUCR and made sure our research projects ran smoothly even when there was occasional discord through the many years she worked in Laurie Grove.

It’s so hard to know what to write in a text or an email to someone who is battling cancer.  All words seem so hollow and every combination of them like a platitude.  Around Christmas I decided I would start sending Carole music instead, just to let her know that we were thinking about her. Through the magic of Voice Memo, I made rehearsal recordings on my mobile phone of festive folk music with a group I was playing with at the time.  Sometimes I would play her gentle instrumental acoustic guitar pieces like Beeswing by Richard Thompson. At Carole’s wake Robin said she had listened to them and that they had made her smile. I kept sending the music even when Carole didn’t reply and it is fitting – in a way – that our last communications were wordless.

Sue said that as well as music she shared with Carole a love of books but had struggled to find an appropriate literary quote for the eulogy. Carole particularly liked the writing of Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. So Sue, fighting back the tears, ended her heartfelt address with a quote from him: ‘Life is a great sunrise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.’

Looking at Carole’s vivid paintings now this quote comes to life differently. Carole will be sorely missed by all at Goldsmiths who worked with her. Putting Ry Cooder’s Little Sister on the turntable tonight I’ll be thinking of her and Sue and imagining what the ‘tea towel dance’ must have looked like. I think Carole would approve of being remembered that way.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of CUCR.

︎ Birdsong by Carole Keegan.