Skip navigation

Saturday November 24, 2012


H. Ian Macdonald remembers Sir John Keegan, who died on Aug. 2, 2012

Military historian Sir John Keegan and I were contemporaries in Balliol College, Oxford University, in the 1950s. In those days, college life was quasi-custodial. At midnight, the college gates were secured and students were left to their own devices. The regular point of entry was up a drainpipe and through John's window on the second floor of staircase 15. John was a late-night reader and remarkably tolerant of the flow of human traffic.

During my first and (last) attempt at scaling the drainpipe, I was greeted by John at his window, saying: "Wait, wait, I understand the college authorities are planning a counterinitiative by wrapping spikes around the drainpipe. I want to experiment with a diversionary tactic." He then dropped me a battered blanket and told me to slide down the coal-chute from the street level. Since I was wearing a dinner jacket, for which I had paid a huge sum from the proceeds of my Rhodes Scholarship, I had grave doubts. However, General Keegan, as I came to call him, exuded confidence and down I went. After what seemed like an eternity, in the midst the erratic scampering of the resident rats, the doors sprang open and I emerged in a cloud of dust.

John stood beaming in a triumphant posture and proclaimed: "Well done, my colonial friend." Thereafter, he always referred to me as "Lord Macdonald of the Coal Cellar."

Back to top