Sir James Craig GCMG 1924-2017

There was a memorial service for James Craig (SAM, 1989-2009; Honorary Fellow, 2008-2017) at Queen’s College on the morning of 11 March 2018. 

Professor Avi Shlaim (Emeritus Fellow) gave the following tribute:

‘The FCO ‘Camel Corps’ has produced many accomplished Arabists, some of them are present here today. James, however, was probably the greatest Arabist in the annals of the British Empire.

In this country most of the spies come from Cambridge and most of the Arabists come from Oxford. James was very much an Oxford man. He started his academic career with a First Class degree in Classics and Oriental Studies at this college and he ended up as a Visiting Professor of Arabic at Pembroke College.

James was a brilliant linguist, not only in Arabic, but Arabic was his life-long passion. He was a lecturer in Arabic at Durham University for seven years before taking up the post of Principal Instructor in Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies in Shemlan, a post he held for 11 years. Only then did he start a second career as a diplomat.

After retiring from the Diplomatic Service, James became a regular visitor to the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College and in 2008 he was elected Honorary Fellow. By this time he had become an iconic figure, almost a legend in his own lifetime. Doctoral students who encountered him in their archival research were thrilled to talk to him and visitors from the region were excited to be able to put a face to the famous name.

James was a wonderful raconteur. Over dinner he would regale us and our guests with stories and vignettes. My favourite story is of his encounter with Golda Meir that Hooky Walker already referred to. The other men at the meeting were the British ambassador to Tel Aviv who had gone native and Lord Balniel, the junior minister at the FCO, who was not the sharpest tool in the box. Golda harangued her visitors, as was her wont, asking aggressively ‘Who started the Six-Day War?’ The ambassador remained silent. Lord Balniel had heard of ‘the Hundred Years’ War’ and the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ but he had not heard of the Six-Day War. So he too kept his peace. James felt constrained to reply and all he said was: ‘Mrs Meir, you fired the first shot!’ All hell broke loose. Later the ambassador said to James with some glee: ‘It is never a good idea to talk to anyone de haut en bas, especially when it is de bas en haut’.

James was a frequent participant in many of our seminars at the MEC but he was never Politically Correct. I think he rather enjoyed provoking people and that sometimes he deliberately cultivated the image of an old buffer. On one occasion he argued that democracy is not suitable for Arabs. I took him to task for his Orientalist bias but he curtly dismissed my protests by saying: ‘I don’t believe in democracy for this country either!’

James was a pedant. Pedantry is a virtue in a scholar. I instil it in my students as James used to instil it in his. He once wrote me a letter on what he kindly described as my ‘splendid’ biography of King Hussein of Jordan. But he also drew attention to ‘a feature of your prose which we pedants call the sequence of tenses, drilled into us at school during our Classical Studies. E.g., p. 582 three lines from the bottom, “may” should be “might”. Similarly, on p. 650 in note 9, “may not” should be “might not”’.

The letter continued: ‘Please forgive the niggling. I am that rare phenomenon, a man in love with grammar. Only today I made Bernie cross because I corrected her when she said: ‘I see you have mowed the lawn’. Should be “mown”! How would Gwyn tolerate such hair-splitting?’

The answer is that Gwyn adored James, she enjoyed his iconoclasm, and she took delight in his quirkiness. Her favourite story was from James’ time as ambassador in Damascus. One evening, after dinner, James strolled in the street with his hands behind his back, whistling. A soldier who was guarding one of the foreign embassies with a mounted sub-machine gun, shouted at him in Arabic: ‘Don’t whistle!’ James replied nonchalantly, ‘I am the English ambassador and if I want to whistle, I’ll whistle’.

Gwyn and I always thought that this would be (or is it “might have been”?) a splendid title for the memoirs that James never wrote. Yet, this line is still a fitting epitaph for an extraordinarily talented, stubbornly individualistic, charmingly old-fashioned, and endlessly fascinating man.’