A recent photograph of Geoff, smiling at the camera.

Dr Geoffrey Walker (1936-2023)

Professor Robert Lethbridge remembers his colleague and friend, Dr Geoffrey Walker:

Geoff Walker, Life Fellow of the College, died in Cambridge on 22 August 2023, aged 87. He was one of the last surviving members of the small group of Fellows elected to reinforce Fitzwilliam’s teaching capacity in the immediate aftermath of it achieving collegiate status in 1966. Geoff’s Fitzwilliam roots, however, predate that crucial moment in the College’s history. He came up to Fitzwilliam House, as it then was, in 1955 to read Modern Languages. Graduating in 1958, he stayed on as a research student in Spanish, completing his PhD in 1963.

Within months of his election to a Fellowship on 15 February 1967 and for the next four years, and again in 1981-82, Geoff took on the role of Steward, the duties of which were then considerably more onerous than they are today. He also volunteered to act as Librarian at various points. But his lifelong commitment to the College and its students is best exemplified by his serving as Director of Studies over the whole of the period between 1974 and his retirement in 1997. Generations of MML undergraduates remain indebted to him for his support and down-to-earth wisdom during their Cambridge careers. Geoff’s modesty precluded him taking credit for their achievements. But he was intensely proud, for them, of the fact that Fitzwilliam’s MML students were consistently among the best-performing college Tripos results, top in 1990 and surpassed in 1992 when 50% of our Part II candidates were awarded Firsts, including one starred and two of them heading the class-list.

Geoff was born in Liverpool on 29 May 1936. Before Fitzwilliam, he was educated at Liverpool College. After graduating, he spent the academic year 1958-59 as English Lector at the University of Madrid. He held a number of scholarships there, including from the British Council and the prestigious Consejo Superior de Investigaciones. But this support was supplemented by ‘the night-time economy’: he was a brilliant pianist, able to play, for ever after, without a score in almost total darkness as a result of doing so in Madrid nightclubs. During that year, on 28 December 1958, he married Anna. Her funeral was held in the College chapel almost exactly a year before Geoff’s death. That occasion, attended by a number of former students of Geoff who knew her well, together with her exceptional inclusion in last year’s obituary notices in the Journal, testify to her own contribution to the life of the Fitzwilliam community over nearly six decades.

It was also during this year in Madrid that Geoff somehow came into contact with the future King Juan Carlos I of Spain. The latter would be internationally celebrated as the hero of a newly-restored European democracy after the end of the Franco dictatorship. It is not by chance that when Cambridge awarded both the King and Queen Sofía honorary degrees in 1988, it was Geoff who was given much of the responsibility by both the University and the Spanish Embassy of organizing the royal visit. Nor is it a coincidence that, consistent with the requirement that all holders of Cambridge degrees have a college provenance, the King and Queen became Honorary Fellows of Fitzwilliam and were personally welcomed to the College by Geoff himself. Official recognition of his immaculate labours came in the shape of his being nominated by the King as a Comendador de la Orden de Isabel la Católica.

Geoff was appointed to a University post in 1962. In the Faculty, he was a proverbial ‘good citizen’: chair of Examiners; a member of innumerable committees and review bodies; Head of the Department of Spanish on three separate occasions, including overseeing its amalgamation with Portuguese in 1990-91. His Spanish Politics and Imperial Trade, 1700-1789(London: Macmillan, 1979) has remained a seminal study, widely used not only in UK and US universities, but also (in its slightly amended Spanish version) in Latin America and Spain itself.  Most of his publications are devoted to the culture of Catalonia. He and Anna had both been inspired by getting to know Josep Maria Batista i Roca (1895-1978), the eminent Catalan scholar and politician, whose portrait hangs in the College by virtue of the legacy endowment of the Visiting Fellowship bearing his name which Geoff put in place. He championed Catalan studies within the Faculty, his contagious enthusiasm resulting in it becoming one of the most popular Part II MML options. Geoff was the sole member of his department with the academic and linguistic expertise to teach it, and worked hard to ensure it would survive after his retirement. He was prominent beyond the University in disseminating its interest and importance: in invited lectures, media appearances, membership of pan-European Associations of Catalan Studies; and as a representative of the Anglo-Catalan Society since 1969, serving as Hon. Treasurer for 15 years before becoming Hon. President (1990-93). The award by the government of Catalonia of the Creu de Sant Jordi (1989) is as telling as the fact that a notice of Geoff’s death was published in four of the province’s leading newspapers.

Geoff will be remembered for many things apart from the above dimensions of his professional life: his irreverent sense of humour laced with sparkling wit; his ‘hatred’ of nouvelle cuisine; for his marvellous company, whether one-to-one or in a group, as a raconteur sans pareil dispensing anecdotes so outlandishly entertaining that his transfixed listeners were left unsure of the distinction between fact and fiction; for his human warmth and his loyalty to friends and colleagues in bad times as well as good; for his generosity of spirit. The epilogue to the story of Geoff’s achievements is marked by a generosity of a more material kind. He was associated with Fitzwilliam for the best part of 70 years. That dedication will now be sustained in perpetuity: for he and his wife long ago bequeathed to the College a very substantial part of their joint estate to establish ‘The Geoffrey and Anna Walker Memorial Fund’.

Geoff’s funeral will be held on 26th September, at 1.30pm in the College chapel, followed by a reception from 2.45pm in the SCR/Grove Lawn or the Upper Hall, if wet. All are welcome.

In due course, the College will organize a Memorial Service in his honour which many friends, colleagues and former students will wish to attend in order to celebrate his life and work. 

Professor Robert Lethbridge, Life Fellow and former Master.


Other News
Today the College flag flies at half-mast in memory of Life Fellow, Dr Geoffrey Walker (1936-2023), who died yesterday evening.
Professor James Aitken (1968-2023), remembered by his Fitzwilliam colleague and friend, Professor Simon Gathercole, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of Cambridge.
It is with great sadness and profound shock that the College announces the death of our friend and colleague, Professor James ‘Jim’ Aitken.