On returning to Oxford from holiday, I was very saddened indeed to receive an email from Lincoln College stating that Paul Langford, former rector and my undergraduate tutor had died. Paul Langford was a highly distinguished historian of eighteenth-century England, a Fellow of Lincoln College from 1969, and a Fellow of the British Academy, well known in particular for his book A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727-1783 (which I was spectacularly impressed, as a student, to find in paperback in airport bookshops).
I first met Paul Langford on an exceptionally bitter winter evening in 1994, in his room in Lincoln College, for my undergraduate admissions interview. There was a ticking clock, an extraordinary panelled Oxford interior, and four imposing figures seated in a row, one of them smartly dressed, serious but friendly, whose leg tapped away in rhythm to my answers. I completely lost my thread half-way through one answer, and was seized with terror that all hopes of an Oxford place had gone. Paul Langford then smiled and said: ‘To be honest, I can’t remember my question either’, and the entire situation seemed much more human, and retrievable.
There were many tutorials in that panelled room, with that same intimidating clock, reading out essays on eighteenth-century Europe. Paul Langford was a quiet but intense presence in a room: a tutor who was not afraid of silences in which you were made to sit and think. He was genuinely kind to his undergraduates: tactfully helping us to arrange entertainment in college for speakers we’d invited down from Westminster, treating us to a splendid post-Finals lunch at his home in Berkshire. Towards the end of my degree, Paul Langford talked about my plans to do research. I explained that I was interested in working on Polish-English ties in the 18C, or (more tentatively) on Renaissance Poland. He gave me then some of the best advice I’ve had, which I now often repeat to my own students: study what you are absolutely most passionate about. He seemed sure that, even at the very earliest stages of research planning, everyone knew deep down what that really was.
I shall very much miss seeing Professor Langford walking through the streets of Oxford, carrying off his distinctive mixture of gravity and joviality, immaculately attired, often looking (to my mind) just a little bit like the eighteenth-century squires he wrote about. I shall miss the knowledge, which I and his fellow students had for so many years after leaving Lincoln, that whenever we walked down Turl Street, he was somewhere behind those walls, such an intrinsic part of the college’s life and identity. Paul Langford, like Vivian Green (also former History tutor and former rector), is a scholar who made a profound mark on both Lincoln College and on his own historical field. And, like a true Oxford tutor, Paul Langford touched the lives of generations of students in so many ways, that even the ablest historian would struggle adequately to record them.