‘Never stray too far from your sources’.
This was the invaluable guidance of Rod Suddaby whom I had the privilege to have as my PhD co-supervisor for the last two years of his life – focusing on the stories of Far Eastern prisoners of war (POWs).
At first it was daunting to be Rod’s student. His knowledge was immense, and being an English graduate I had not studied history for at least a decade. But Rod could not have been a more generous, patient, or thorough advisor, and my trepidation turned into delight. Rod put himself through the task of reading everything I churned out at least twice. First he did his ‘ring true’ test, to check whether what I had written was convincing historically. Only when he was sure of that did the pencil come out, and he would go through every sentence again, every footnote, and every reference with the utmost precision.
We would arrange to go to the museum café where an argument about him insisting on buying me a cake became customary, and as I nibbled my way through the cake he would make his way through each page - explaining his annotated comments, and the reasons for the suggestions he made. During a particularly tricky draft in which I tangled myself in theory, he cheerfully offered one concise comment: ‘I skipped all that’. Rod never strayed from his sources.
I laughed and learned a lesson he was keen that I understood – to keep my words grounded in the history of what POWs lived, to be sure of what we know by double checking everything against available records, and to let the stories of POWs speak for themselves.
After these discussions in the café, we would go up to the Department of Documents where Rod would dig out the collections he thought relevant to whatever latest work I was doing. His excitement at sharing those things was infectious. What he showed me was always a joy, from a short quote I would not have had a hope of finding otherwise, to several boxes of fascinating papers. Rod made sure that he placed each collection in its precise context: and he did so with a smile that told me it was a pleasure to pass on a story, just as it was to hear it for the first time.
My time with Rod quickly became one of precious motivation and inspiration. He knew how to make the stories of the POW camps come alive, but never forgot that those stories were created by the men who lived it – many of whom he met, and had gained their trust. As we parted at the end of our meetings he would ask if he had been helpful, always with the same words – ‘is that all okay?'
‘Okay’ does not begin to cover the knowledge Rod shared without hesitation, the guidance he gave with such humility, and the legacy he leaves as a result.
The sad news of Rod's death inspired tributes to be paid to him from researchers across the world, particularly among those researching the experiences of Far Eastern Prisoners of War.