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Robin Leonard Bidwell (1929-1994)

Robin Bidwell, one time political officer in the Western Aden Protectorate and author of several works on Yemen and its history, died suddenly at his home in Coney Weston, Suffolk, on 10th April 1994.

Educated at Downside and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Robin Bidwell gained a first in history. His first taste of the Middle East came when he was posted as an Intelligence Corps sergeant to the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt. He became a political officer in the W.A.P. in 1955. He served during the same period as his good friend Johnny Johnson in Ahwar and Subaihi country, times and places which he remembered fondly in the years to come. He remained in the W.A.P. until 1959.

His real Middle East travels began thereafter when he was appointed as Oxford University Press travelling editor for the Middle East. His claim, when in 1965 he returned to Cambridge on a Hayter scholarship to work under the late Professor Bob Serjeant, was that he had travelled in all the countries of the Middle East without exception. His research on the French administration in Morocco earned him his PhD in 1968.

From 1968 until his retirement in 1990 he was Secretary and Librarian of the Middle East Centre in the Faculty of Oriental Studies in the University of Cambridge and wrote much on the subject of French and British colonial history. He was an effective and caring PhD supervisor who maintained a steady flow of excellently trained modern Middle Eastern historians as well as being a popular and enthusiastic reacher of undergraduates there.

Bidwell had the wonderful gift of being able to write for both scholar and layman with equal facility. He had an innate skill too of being able to handle archives which he used a great deal in all his many publications. His ‘Affairs of Kuwait’ and ‘Affairs of Arabia’ were published in 1973. His life-long fascination with those who had travelled to the remote and forbidden regions of Arabia produced ‘Travellers in Arabia’ in 1976. Bidwell’s ‘The Two Yemens’is an enormous tour de force in which he unravels in great detail the history of both North and South Yemen from the 19th century down to the early ‘80s. Ostensibly for the general reader, it draws on numerous written and oral sources and remains the standard scholarly text on the subject. Although Bidwell himself was not a prolific article writer - his monographs are, however, numerous - he negotiated with Serjeanr in the early ‘70s to bring into being the first journal devoted solely to the study of Arabia. ‘Arabian Studies’ was born in 1974, a distinctive journal which continued to provide, despite the occasional financial difficulties, a unique blend of heavy-weight scholarship and the lighter efforts of the amateur researcher. Bidwell fortunately saw the first issue of its successor, ‘New Arabian Studies’, published in 1993, before his death.

Those who knew him will recall him as a man of tremendous joviality and lively humour. He disliked pomposity and his puckish wit was not always appreciated by those prone to take themselves too seriously. His distinctive laugh reverberated wherever he was to be found. His Arabian and Middle Eastern adventures provided the background for many an amusing session with friends. A great teur, he excelled when comfortably reinforced with a good curry and a pint of ale, his tales always peppered with cricketing or other colourful imagery; I recall an occasion when, invited by a Yemeni farmer to try his hand with a winnowing pan, he seized it with enthusiasm and announced his intention of playing an imaginary ball to silly mid-on. On another occasion when a visiting London publisher expressed his desire to take a punt from the Mill to Grantchester, Robin promptly arranged the spree and, straddling the prow in an unorthodox fashion, enlivened the voyage with confused nautical exhortations to his crew.

When deprived of his company, his friends looked forward to his letters. In them, when business was disposed of, he would turn to news of his family, of the latest exploit of his faithful dog, Dogg (or of his younger successor who had ‘failed his sheepdog exams so miserably that he wasn’t even allowed to resit!’) or the latest village gossip. He was an enthusiastic sports follower; his faded MCC tie was brought out on appropriate occasions and he would attend the Varsity game at Twickenham every December unless he happened to be out of the country. But behind the bonhomie was a caring, serious character of great integrity as those close to him well appreciated.

Robin Bidwell was over fifty when he married. He and his wife Margaret delighted in their daughter, Leila, and lived happily in Suffolk enjoying rural pursuits, integrated well into the village community in Coney Weston. It was here that he died of a heart attack, seated at his computer, while putting the finishing touches to the dictionary of the modern Arab world which had been his prime research for the previous eight years.

Bidwell’s lasting memorials are surely three: his greatly readable scholarly works; the journal ‘Arabian Studies’ (latterly ‘New Arabian Studies’); and the Middle East Centre library in Cambridge which he created and nurtured with such tender loving care over the years. And in addition for his friends a warm-heartedness and companionship sorely missed.

God rest him.