The Commonwealth has lost one of its greatest communicators and networkers and The Round Table a valued friend and contributor, with the death on 25 November 2022, shortly after his ninetieth birthday, of William Patrick Kirkman.
Bill – as he was always known – was born in India, in Bihar, for which he maintained a wry affection, educated at Oxford, trained in provincial journalism before moving to The Times, as Africa and Commonwealth Correspondent in the early sixties, covering the exciting days of decolonisation and independence. Bill went everywhere and knew everyone and to the end of his long life would recount anecdotes of his encounters with such figures as Garfield Todd and Kenneth Kaunda. He broadcast for the BBC World and Africa services and wrote his one book Unscrambling an Empire: a critique of British Colonial Policy 1956-1966 – still one of the best studies of the ill-fated Central African Federation.
He moved on to a second and equally distinguished career (in careers), working first for the Oxford Careers Service and then from 1968-1992 as Head of the Cambridge University Careers service. An Oxford graduate himself, he served his adopted university well, as a founding fellow of Wolfson and as Vice-President of that college 1980-84. He became Secretary of The Cambridge Society and edited its journal, Cambridge and helped set up the university’s press office.
India Since 1980 – The Round Table, Volume 101, 2012 – Issue 5
The Great Indian Phone Book. How Cheap Mobile Phones Change Business, Politics and Daily Life – The Round Table, Volume 102, 2013 – Issue 4
British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t – The Round Table, Volume 106, 2017 – Issue 2
Home Fronts: Britain and the Empire at War, 1939–45 – The Round Table, Volume 107, 2018 – Issue 2
Bill never lost his journalistic interests and flair, or his ability to meet a deadline. For many years he wrote a weekly column for The Hindu.
He was always ready to make connections between his Cambridge and Commonwealth worlds. He founded and directed Wolfson’s Press Fellowship Programme, which brought many Commonwealth journalists to Cambridge for an exciting and formative experience. He played an important part behind the scenes in bringing the Royal Commonwealth Society Library to Cambridge and with a small band of fellow enthusiasts revived the defunct Cambridge branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society turning it into a unique hybrid town/gown society where international students and retired colonial administrators and professionals debated, interacted and consumed a great variety of national cuisines.
Bill was active in far more spheres than can be listed here. He had a gift for friendship and for getting things done. He hated jargon and in-talk. He maintained his standards – always wore a jacket and tie – but was never stuffy. He was a great encourager, never pompous and a great source of sound advice, in-depth knowledge and wry humour. With all his Commonwealth links and expertise, we are not sure why he was never a member of the The Round Table’s editorial board but the journal is indebted to him for many book reviews and opinion pieces. His interview for the Commonwealth Oral History Project revealed his insights into the Commonwealth.
Terry Barringer is the Assistant Editor of The Round Table Journal.