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Nicholas Tarling, R.I.P.

The second thing I ever learned about Nicholas Tarling was that he was dead.


The first was that he had written a book about Britain and the Vietnam War. I discovered this when a copy of it popped up in my mailbox as a reviewing assignment. Thinking I might be able to make it a "two-fer" with a podcast I decided to look him up, so I typed his name into my computer's Internet search box and that was when I learned that he had died in May at the age of 86.


Then I clicked on his obituary and learned just what an amazing person he was.


Peter Nicholas Tarling was born in Britain in 1931. He attended Cambridge, where he was supervised by J. H. Plumb (another person who led a kick-ass life and the historian who introduced me to the frustrations of the great unfinished multi-volume biography) and earned a doctorate under Victor Purcell, who combined the careers of civil servant and historian and who went on to be memorialized by the people of Christmas Island with a postage stamp. After he graduated, he took up a position in Australia, where he taught European and Asian for eight years and during which time he published three books on Malay-European relations. In a profession where most historians produce only a couple of monographs over the course of their careers (and I can't even crank out a damn article), that's not nothing.


In 1965, Tarling decamped for New Zealand, where he took up a position at the University of Auckland. Over the next 32 years he went on to serve in a variety of administrative positions, including Dean of the Faculty of Arts and vice-chancellor of the university, and contributed to the growth of the university and higher education in New Zealand in general. He also organized conferences, served on the editorial boards of various journals, in a number of professional societies, and was a vising professor in Brunei. People have led distinguished careers doing only some of these things, and he did all of them.


He was also passionate about the arts. Most people express such passion in their attendance at musical and theatrical performances, which he did. But he also expressed it by taking the stage as well, founding the Mercury Theatre Company and acting in the Howick Little Theatre. He was also a broadcaster and did musical and dramatic readings, and was a trustee of just about every arts and musical organization in the country.


Tarling's retirement in 1997 did not mean a cessation of his activity. Instead he turned his prodigious energies to writing, producing one or even two books a year -- not just transnational histories of European-Asian relations, but memoirs, edited collections, and even a contemporary history of opera in Auckland. I wish I could say that his histories were gripping page-turners, but if his newest one was anything to go by they were not; what they were was deeply-researched products of much archival labor that his successors will be profiting from reading decades from now.


His death was of a piece with his life, as he died while swimming off of Narrow Neck Beach. I don't know the details and it was likely something as natural as a heart attack or possibly even tragic like a suicide (swimming there was among many of his loves), but I like to think he died while trying to circumnavigate North Island or in a fistfight with a bunch of great white sharks. Because it seems nothing was impossible for Tarling. He lived a rich life that enriched everyone who knew him, and I'm sorry not to have had the privilege of being one of them.