Saturday, August 19, 2017


Woke up this morning to read of the death of Paul Oliver at the age of 90. 
What is the African saying:
When an old person dies a library burns. 

In November 2009, I was privileged to spend one afternoon and early evening with Paul and others at his Oxfordshire house - and at the nearby pub. My mission there on that day could not have been more personally significant or more nerve-wracking. 

I had completed a book on Vernacular Architecture for a book packager who'd made a publishing deal with Thames & Hudson and Rizzoli. Anthony Reid,the Consultant Editor, who guided and corrected my work, was a vernacular architecture teacher who had studied under Paul. He set up this meeting to get Paul's blessing on the project. Also present was the head of the school of vernacular architecture at Oxford Brookes University. The stakes couldn't have been higher.

Paul's stone house was pre-Georgian and suited the man. He  had lived alone since his wife died. They had travelled the world together (many times probably) and I was to get a guided tour of the remarkable and often scary tribal art pieces they had brought back.

Mr Oliver was very gracious. I took him through the proof of the finished book. I am sure he made comments and asked questions but I was in such a state of tension (expecting at any moment for him to say OH DEAR! - major mistake that would scupper the book completely) that I can't remember the details.

Happily all was well and after we'd toasted the occasion with a few glasses of wine, he offered us tea. I went with him into the kitchen and began to talk to him about the blues. 

Its impossible to underestimate Oliver's work on the blues. He was the first white guy (one of the first?) to write in England on the topic and his incredible knowledge and contacts enabled him to define this field of study. One can imagine the huge enthusiasm he brought to his pioneering task.

He told me the story, often retold by many, of first hearing the blues in a field in Norfolk.He said at that time during the War he was too young to enlist so you could either be a forester or work with a farmer. The field in question was next to a US Air Force base, of which there were many in East Anglia at that time, and Paul heard, over the hedge, someone singing in a way he'd never heard before. That was the blues and it was to be his lifelong passion.

As was vernacular architecture, a subject area which he more or less invented, certainly dominated. His many books on the subject were absolutely required reading. He wrote in a remarkable style, expressing ideas and perspectives that only someone with his depth of knowledge could reach. What that man and his wife must have seen in those years before mass tourism and international terrorism, when it was possible to roam Eurasia, Polynesia, the Andean regions, the Balkans and Mid East with impunity.

Is there a link between these two fields of study. I think so. Imagine a song travelling from Scotland to the Appalachians. As its resung and passed on, it acquires local characteristics and embellishments, like musical Chinese whisper. Similarly, an I-House (a very popular plan for a self-build house that spread across America) acquired its own embellishments and local building styles. That's my two-p worth anyway.

Later that same day, he took me upstairs and showed me the almost frightening amount of pictures and tapes from his travels that he had carefully accumulated, most if not all carefully labelled from what I saw.

After we parted, I later spoke to him on the phone and asked whether I could come and interview him about his two passions. He declined and said he was working on his own autobiography. I hope its something he completed. 

I know so little of his mountainous knowledge but look forward to many years of exploration. I will always look back on that afternoon and early evening, in a small Oxfordshire village, when I was welcomed by a great man. Respect.

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