|15 Dec 2022
We have heard of the recent passing of Bradfieldian Matthew Leeming (E 78-82) who was born on 22 September 1964 and died on 29 November 2022 of natural causes. He was regarded as a remarkable writer on Afghanistan.
Speaking back in 2009 in an Old Bradfieldian newsletter about his time at Bradfield, Matthew remembered fondly the Quest Series of lectures which inspired him and is reproduced below. For many at Bradfield in the 1970s and 1980s the most memorable part of the sixth form was John Sayer's Quest, a week-long series of lectures on anthropology.
Matthew said "John was quite simply the best lecturer I have ever heard. I was surprised when I got to University that all dons' lectures were not as gripping as his. And it was many years later, as I got to know him as a friend, that I discovered how extraordinarily wide his knowledge was. As part of Quest, he showed us an epic 1926 silent film called Grass, which followed the Bakhtiari nomads on their annual migration across the Zagros mountains, with unforgettable footage of small girls carrying kid goats on their backs while hacking steps in glaciers, and an entire nation crossing rivers on inflated goat skins. Long after it had been shown every year by John in the Music Schools, Grass became a cult classic in filmmaking circles because the next film the Americans cinema pioneers who travelled with the Bakhtiari went on to make was King Kong. When John learned that Wilfred Thesiger had travelled with the Bakhtiari he dug out an old print of it so Thesiger, towards the end of his life and before his sight completely failed, was able to relive his journey of half a century before. John was interested in everything that human beings did which, I suppose, is the definition of an anthropologist, and it meant that he was one of the few people I knew who was not bored by travel stories. I remember telling him that in Afghanistan I had stayed with a mullah to whom the sick repaired and who would write out a verse of the Koran on a piece of paper which the invalid must keep with them and which purported to effect a cure. 'Ah' said John, 'you see exactly the same thing here. You go to the doctor, and he writes out a charm on a piece of paper which you take away with you.' Everything could be analysed and synthesised into anthropological theory and curious pieces of English behaviour likened to Melanesian cargo cults. The last time I spent a whole day in his company he took me to Presilly in Wales to the outcrop of rock where the megaliths of Stonehenge were quarried. He wanted to know why Neoliths had gone to the considerable trouble of transporting the bluestones from Presilly to the Salisbury plains. It is much the most interesting aspect to the stone circle - how they did it is just a boringly practical question, already solved by engineers. We went with a film producer to whom I had introduced him, in the hope of making anthropology sexy and John a television star. The producer had some experience of the engineering side of things when he made a film - or rather, started to make a film - of an attempt to reconstruct transporting the bluestones from Wales to Wiltshire by boat and which had ended at the bottom of the Bristol channel. But John had talked to the farmer on whose land the bluestones lie who said that in the evening and after rain his sheep lay on the rocks which kept the heat more than the surrounding grassland. John's theory was that to the Neolithic mind (and that mind and its self-expression in cave art was his research subject) these stones would have seemed to be responsible for their flocks' fertility and so when the Presilly neoliths moved to what is now the Salisbury plain, these stones would have been as necessary as the flocks themselves. Unusually for an academic, John was soundly right-wing, and another good reason to find his company congenial. Structural anthropologists classify folk tales into a number of archetypal genres. One is the Quest narrative in which a hero is sent by an Originator to find someone or something and on his journey meets Opponents and Helpers - King Solomon's Mines is the most perfect example in English. For a number of people lucky enough to hear him lecture, John was the Originator of the Quest."
At that time Matthew was The Spectator's Afghanistan correspondent and author of the book Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide.