I was lucky to meet Susan in 2003 through our research work at Cardiff University. Susan had originally studied English at Portmouth Poly. After graduating, she worked in London at Spittalfield’s Market before moving to Cardiff to take a Masters degree in Language and Communication, followed by a PhD on the topic of missing people. She won a departmental award for Outstanding Teaching by a Graduate Student; her research too made an impact; the National Missing People’s Helpline made changes to the language of their advertisements, and focused more attention upon the people left behind, the ‘missees’ as Susan called them. Susan also worked as an artist with S2, on projects remembering the disappearance of a rapidly changing Cardiff. She gained a research position at Cardiff University, and following that held posts at the University of Glamorgan, then at the University of Ulster; her head of school described her as a popular, committed and enthusiastic colleague, with great creativity in her approaches with students. She was offered work at the University of Copenhagen, but returned to Cardiff and worked for the Open University. All her students commented on her remarkable talents as a teacher, and the generosity with which she shared her knowledge. And notable too, were the topics of her research: her perceptive attention to matters of justice, and her steely focus on those who live on life’s margins. Susan was no mere academic; she lived a much richer life and brought her insights into the troubles and difficulties that face so many, her empathy with those who have least in life, into her careful, rigorous research.
In some of Susan’s work, she talked of how a text may frame a subject in order to draw attention towards certain aspects, or away from certain aspects.
But however you frame Susan, there’s one thing that’s clear: she stands out from any background. Here’s some things to remember: Being dragged around every single restaurant in Reykjavik with each one in turn dismissed as unsuitable; Susan refusing to eat food if there was more than one red thing on the plate; Susan carefully explaining to me the rhetorical significance of three part lists. And always in the frame, the unspoken truths that we wish Susan could have believed in more: that she was unique, that she exuded truthfulness, rigour and honesty; that she was brilliant, she was brave.
But Susan’s outstanding quality was simply this: she was Susan.
At work, she was the brightest, the most intense, the most passionate academic. The project we worked on was called ‘The genetic testing of children’. How poignant, given Susan’s own story, that she had the perception to point out that the project was actually about genetic testing in childhood, because we are all, always, even as adults, the children of someone. With her unerring ear for the underdog, she simply called the Institute of Medical Genetics, where doctors did little other than tell people they had something wrong with them, ‘Quality Control’. All of you who loved her should know this: that Susan was adamant that a short life is no less valuable than a long life. She spoke delightedly of a woman she’d interviewed who was so full of life, despite her fatal degenerative disorder; her son enthusiastically gave her wheelies along the seafront in her wheelchair. Susan used to say the theme tune for our project was ‘Che Sera, Sera’. Che sera, sera, Susan.
Most importantly, she had the highest, most unshakable integrity of anyone I’ve worked with in her stance towards the conduct of research and academic life. Rightly impatient of shoddy practice, she had the guts to do something few ever do, and preferred unemployment to compromise. Hats off to you, Susan.
She could also be a little annoying; to hear Susan say yet again that the text ‘just needed to be tweaked a little’ would bring a feeling of incomparable dread. Yet out of all this, Susan badgered and thought and rethought and pushed on to create insightful contributions to scholarship; to work with her was to learn much, from a careful and committed educator.
She was the perfect friend. She directed her energies with torpedo-like precision at this task. One article we wrote together showed how choice of example will skew the conclusions that you draw; nonetheless, with apology, I’m going to use some examples of my own here; you will all have your own too. As a house-guest, she arrived with her tool box, ready to help. She was with me at a conference in Berlin when I was told that my son had been taken into hospital; with no flights out that night, Susan knew instinctively how to comfort a worried mother. She was with me again at a conference in Iceland; together with Suzie we laughingly refused to join in the forced intimacy of naked late night swims with our fellow delegates and instead enjoyed the delightful camaraderie of the unsociable. When I managed to discover the plot number of the grave of my maternal grandmother, who’d herself died in terrible circumstances as a young woman, Susan came with me to the cemetery. I didn’t ask her to come; she just realised I needed support and rose to the occasion. We stopped on the way at a café and ate an obscenely large fry-up, then traipsed around until we found the right place: Susan held my hand as we stared together at the sunken, unattended plot of grass, then gave me practical information about how to get a headstone made. Her kindness and insight was so much a part of who she was, that I don’t think I ever thought to remark on it.
Susan got to you. She saw through people with the same insights she brought to language: with the same keen appreciation of fine detail within a synoptic view of the whole. She was an acute observer of others, their strengths and their foibles, and this was not always comfortable, although in the end, the truth is always comforting. She could work out things about a person that nobody else had noticed. How, Susan? From where did you get the brilliant clarity of your vision?
Susan, there was no one like you. You were a truly good person. You have been taken from us too soon, far too soon; you, who were so strict to complete every text you wrote until it reached the highest standard – how can it be that the story of your life has ended so abruptly, the page torn, the words run out? How can you be the missing person now? How can we be those left behind, bewildered that you have vanished? Now the only thing we can do with our grief is to try to work, to think about life, and to live life, to the incomparably high standards that you have set.
With love to Susan, from Polar Bear-dington
Susan Helen Hogben, taken from us April 6th 2014