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Philip M. Taylor: Musings of the Mind

Posted by Jacob Jacob on December 7, 2010 at 12:44 PM

 

Phil, the finest, the best

 

I first read ‘Munitions of the Mind’ in 1997. I was in the final year of my undergrad in Nigeria. The book was in the Special section of the library and could not be borrowed. So I had to keep a date with it every morning 7.30am to 8.30am before attending the day’s lecture. It was like attending an interesting talk every morning. Every new chapter was intriguing. I was fascinated not just with the contents but also with the free flowing style of the writing. The Author was authoritative. He knew what he was talking about and did not hesitate to show it. And he did so masterfully – with poetic ease. Then I never knew I would eventually meet him and be supervised by him. When I was admitted in 2006 to study for a PhD at the ICS, I was extremely fascinated to have Phil as my supervisor. I had the options of LSE, Lancaster and Royal Holloway. I knew that my research may be served better in a full Peace and Conflict department, but I could not let the opportunity of working with Philip M. Taylor slip. By this time I was a lot more familiar with his work and more excited about the prospect of meeting him, knowing him more and working with him.

 

Our first meeting

 

I felt like a teenager preparing for a first date with his heartthrob. I remember walking down the corridor of the third floor of Houldsworth Building (as it then was), my heart racing. Phil’s office was towards the end of the long ICS corridor. He was a bit taller than what I had imagined he would be. And had more furrows on his face than the image on his staff page. He said he was fascinated with my proposal and thought it would make an interesting study. He said it was just the right time to study the nature of the UN’s ‘peace propaganda’ and that it would be the very first study of its kind in the world! He said if we got the project right, I would be famous. “It’s the kind of research that would make you stand out from the crowd”, he said. I walked out of his office that day feeling larger than life. This was it! The job was half way done! But over the weeks and months that followed, discussions with him and more critical readings gradually shaped my thinking. My Supervision meetings with him were very unusual. They were more like debates. I have very strong views almost on everything. He would get up and draw process maps or models on the chalk board in his office then to buttress his point. By the time I was ready for my Upgrade, my research had taken on a totally different direction and colour. I realised then like I do now that my proposal was not that good after all! Phil was only getting me to believe in myself more and in the quality of what my work could be. That was Phil. Inspiring. Motivating.

 

PhD fatigues and Hiccups

 

During the course of my PhD, there were plenty of hiccups along the way. But Phil stood by me through it all. At some of my lowest moments – and there were plenty of them, he kept faith in me and kept encouraging and spurring me on. There were times I felt I had had enough and couldn’t continue, but his interest in the work, a brief email and a nice word made so much difference. I needed to suspend my PhD at a point. When I returned, Phil was happier than I was and I couldn’t help but wonder what was in it for him! He pushed the work as if he knew he had little time left. I remember once telling him I was preparing to attend a conference in the US, he said to me, “look Jacob, we don’t have much time, you need to work your sucks off. You don’t need the conference now, sit down and get the job done”. One would have thought that I had only a few days left to submit. I had extended my submission date and it was at least a year away. But that’s Phil. He had a personal interest in my research like he does with all his students and was keen to ensure it was successful.

 

Phil’s ill!

 

I’m accustomed to seeing Phil as a war horse – vibrant, charismatic, audacious. But in August, after returning from a trip to Malaysia, he looked less than himself. I knew he was ill. His health deteriorated in September. But the doctors, he said, didn’t know what was wrong with him. He complained of the invasive nature of some of the tests and even made jokes of them. He also said he was less than comfortable with the intellectual curiosity of the doctors at the General Infirmary in Bradford and said he would write a newspaper article about the NHS when he returned to work.

 

Even while he was ill, Phil won’t miss any of his lectures. In October when he was admitted in hospital, Dr. Robin Brown and Professor Gary Rawnsley had to make arrangements to take over the module. But to everyone’s surprise, Phil showed up and said he would teach on the next lecture day as scheduled. The hospital didn’t know what was wrong with him and they had asked him to go wait at home. He said he’d rather be at work – doing what he loves best, than sit at home. That was Phil. In his last lecture, though going through pains, he spoke of Information Operations and Information Warfare and why the Americans were having it so tough and so wrong in areas that really mattered. Sitting on the front row of that lecture on Tuesday 26th October I could not help but feel the effort he was putting into every word. He spoke with extra-ordinary passion. One could see he was frail. But the strength of his speech was not diminished. Phil’s lectures were not like the usual lectures of a typical British Professor. They were more like speeches. He would gesticulate, pace up and down the teaching area. His PowerPoint slides were extraordinary – full of images, animations and colour. So fascinating were his lectures that one of the MA students brought his mother who was visiting from abroad to attend Phil’s lecture. Unfortunately however, it was the first day ever that Phil did not show up for his lecture because of ill health.

 

The Vanity of Death

 

What really is death? Is there life after death? I hope there is, cause it would be so unfair if this life is all there is. It would be such a waste. Such vanity. But death on its own is vanity. Death is news. Death is money, big money. The higher the number of deaths, the bigger the money. The higher the personality that’s dead, the bigger the money too. The Media thrive on deaths. 240,000 killed in a Tsunami! 10 US Marines killed in a Week! Princess Diana Killed in a car crash! Front page news of deaths sells newspapers. When it is statistics or front page news, death is distant. It is faceless. It is news. It is circulation and money for an editor and the newspaper owner. But when death crashes through the roof of your own home, it takes on this dark, ruthless face. It takes away sleep and leaves a puff of thick silent smoke that numbs. We all know that the friend, the parent or grandparent we love so dearly would leave us someday. For Phil, I knew he had only months to live – his doctors had told him so about two weeks before his death and he graciously shared it with a few of his friends. In his email to me, he wrote “I have a secondary tumor from a (as yet unknown) primary cancer source. It is aggressive, advanced and terminal. I have been told that I will live for a 'matter of months not years'”. The email was a reality check because we were all hoping he would be strong and would return soon. I was keen to see him and I told him so. But he replied almost immediately and said he would attend the convocation ceremony (planned for third week of December) and that we should see then. I imagined, Phil would prefer not to be seen on a helpless hospital bed. I had to respect that and was indeed looking forward to seeing him on December 14th and taking a few pictures and maybe having a drink. How naïve I was! He died on Monday 6th December 2010 – exactly two weeks after my viva, a little over week before we were due to see again. Although I had prepared myself for an academic career without Phil, I never thought it would happen so soon. The news hit me in the midriff and then caused a nauseating feeling I’ve never felt before. I wept like a child. Writing this now, I can’t believe Phil is dead, just like that. He’s gone. He’s simply ceased to exist. He will never sit in his office anymore. Phil Taylor is gone.

 

Phil, the Man

 

People have different opinions of Phil. Some would say he would have lived longer if he had smoked fewer cigarettes. Maybe that’s true. But there are many things we do in life that are life-shortening yet they are part of who we are – the chocolates, the late-night pizzas, the extra pints of beer, the late nights just to complete that paper! For my grand-dad it was snuff. He was addicted to raw tobacco. We tried to discourage him when he was getting really old and frail. “Leave me alone” he would say. Then, using his index finger to stash the brown substance inside his nostrils, he would say “look, this is who I am. I cannot think well, or say what I want to say well without a snuff. Snuff makes me to be myself!” Indeed, we knew he was right. It was part of his identity – the peculiar way he opened his snuff box, the particular finger he used to pack the snuff, the angle he kept his face and nostrils for the insertion and the near choking sneezes that would follow. It was pretty much the same with Phil. He loved his cigarettes. He puffed with a smile up his brows. That was Phil. Smoking was part of the Phil Taylor we knew, loved and admired. Maybe he would have been less of himself if he had quitted smoking. A PhD colleague at the ICS, once told me of her first meeting with Phil. She said Phil told her then that he was a bit grumpy because he had recently quit smoking. That was over five years ago, obviously he did not quit for very long. But we loved and adored him for who he was, and smoking was part of the package.

 

Phil, the Nurse Log

 

Phil once said he knew every word of every sentence of his every book. He said his computer was mangled with the blood from the birth pangs of every word he’s written in all his books. For him, words weren’t just words, they were tiny pellets of meaning. He never wrote just for the sake of writing. His articles and books were authoritative and written not in a bombastic or verbose style but in beautiful prose that would make an interesting reading even to the non-specialist. I think that’s why ‘Munitions of the Mind’ is so popular from Africa to Asia, from Europe to North America. In my academic writings, I have unashamedly drawn from his style. Several scholars that he supervised and mentored have in one way or the other drawn from Phil’s style – either in the way they talk or in the way they write or in some other way that they borrowed from Phil. For many of us Phil has given us more than a shoulder to stand on. He’s a nurse log. Nurse logs are generous. They provide needed nutrients, a home, a base for new seedlings to grow. Mushrooms nourish and flourish from nurse logs. Tender plants get their feet from nurse logs and then spread the palm of their leaves toward the sky and grow until they reach that turning point in their lives when they need to reach out for their own soil. But some do live on their nurse logs for however long it takes. As the last in a long and illustrious line of scholars Phil has supervised I feel passionately close to him. I feel a sense of duty to carry on from where he left. I feel really blessed that he stayed to see my viva and the happy outcome. He sent me a congratulatory message and said how proud he was. He had sent me an email earlier that day to say he would have loved to attend my viva but that he was still in hospital, "be yourself, be brilliant", he wrote. A giant tree has fallen to the ground, and several mushrooms will continue to sprout and grow. He is a nurse log to many. There are many of us and I think there is something special about us – those of us that have sat in his lecture rooms and soaked his passion. A nurse log never dies. It lives on in the gills and caps of sprouting mushrooms, in the frond of every fern and in the roots of every tree it has nursed. So shall it be with Phil.

 

Someone once said that our calling when we are born is to live, to learn, to love and to leave a legacy. Only a tiny minority tick all these boxes. Phil is among that tiny minority. He’s left a legacy – a nurse log from which we can grow and be nourished. Standing on this nurse log now, I can taunt death with the old Biblical dictum: ‘O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory?’


Categories: Strategic Communications, Information Operations, Propaganda, Psyops, Public Diplomacy

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