RIP Keith Jeffery, Secret Service Historian and Cox Extraordinaire

The Times yesterday (behind the paywall) carried very sad news - the death of Professor Keith Jeffery, a distinguished historian and someone who, although he was never a close friend, influenced my life hugely.  Here is the article I wrote about him in the very early days of Spend Matters back in September 2010 - not really procurement related, but never mind. A brilliant, inspirational man, gone far too soon, and our condolences to everyone close to him.

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MI6 and the Biggest Cox I Ever Met

On this chilly Sunday morning, at the time of year when nervous yet excited youngsters head off to university, here's a story about my first week at St John's College, Cambridge some (xxx) years ago.

Like many, I was tempted along to club and society fresher meetings more by the quantity and quality of the drink on offer than by any real interest in the topic.  So when we heard that the Lady Margaret Boat Club (the confusingly named St John's rowing club) had multiple barrels of Abbott Ale, we were there like a shot.  Rowing?  That's what posh schools did, not comprehensives in Sunderland.  And I was pretty weedy, so no way I was going to get involved with pulling a dirty great boat along the river at the crack of dawn.  Football yes; rowing, no way.

After a couple of pints, the promotional speeches from the Boat Club committee started.  The first guy told us that it required hard work, early mornings, etc etc.  Yeah, right.  Like we were going to do that!  Another pint was called for.

Then a tall, curly haired bespectacled chap, a post-graduate student with a mellifluous Irish accent, stood up.  He must have been about 6 ft 1 and didn't look undernourished.  "I'm Keith Jeffrey, the first boat cox" he said. "Almost certainly the biggest cox in Cambridge, quite possibly the UK".

He then gave the most humorous yet inspirational speech I had ever heard (and probably ever have).  He talked about the history of the college, of the boat club, the Olympians who had gone before us, the teamwork and feeling of achievement, the joy of a cold, sharp morning on a glass-like river, the dinners and celebrations, the boat burnings after a successful Bumps,  and what we could do for Lady Margaret Boat Club.  By the time he finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the house, and every one of us had signed up for a term of water-based punishment; starting at 7am the next morning.

Keith was an amazing cox - he was far to big really, he hardly fitted into the boat and was taller than half the crew.  But he had such amazing personality, humour and motivational abilities it didn't matter.  His weight was irrelevant; the boat went faster with Keith in charge.  I also took to coxing; I had the advantage of being a more suitable size, and so my university life, my friendships and even arguably my career was changed by Keith's speech that night (I leveraged my coxing experience into graduate milk round job interviews in a pretty big way!)  So I owe him a lot.

How on earth does this relate to MI6? ( I hear you say).  Well, I haven't seen him in the flesh for probably 20 years, but I've just watched Professor Keith Jeffrey interviewed by Andrew Marr on BBC1 TV.  He is now an eminent historian and the author of the new official history of MI6, published this week.  He's lost the curly hair, but he is still an absolutely natural communicator.  It sounds like a fascinating book; and if the BBC have any sense, they'll give Keith his own TV programme.  Something historical I guess; but I would pay good money to hear him talk about pretty much anything.  Even rowing.

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