"A larger-than-life, restlessly curious fellow": my memories of Godfrey Hodgson

Hodgson, who died recently, was the Director of our Fellowship Programme from 1993 to 2001. Mark Landler pays tribute to him
Godfrey Hodgson (left) with the 1999 cohort of Journalist Fellows. Credit: Ian Henscheke

Godfrey Hodgson (left) with the 1999 cohort of Journalist Fellows. Credit: Ian Henscheke

Godfrey Hodgson, born on 1 February 1934, died on 27 January 2021. A respected journalist and a trained historian, he wrote a number of books, most of them about American history. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Director of our Journalist Fellowship Programme. Our former Journalist Fellow Mark Landler, London Bureau Chief of the 'New York Times', remembers his time with Godfrey in this piece. 

I met Godfrey Hodgson in the fall of 1997 as I was preparing for my first foreign posting for the New York Times, in Hong Kong. I had applied for a Reuters fellowship, having sold my editors on the idea that I would spend a few months learning Chinese in Oxford before I landed in post-handover Hong Kong. I ended up learning precious little Mandarin, but many other useful things – thanks, in no small part, to Godfrey.

He was a gregarious, larger-than-life, restlessly curious fellow, eager to share what he knew and to introduce us fellows to his circle of well-connected British journalists. The weekly dinners he hosted at Norham Gardens were high-spirited, bibulous affairs, featuring Britain’s leading editors and writers (Alan Rusbridger, Rupert Cornwell), none of whom Godfrey spared a blizzard of questions.

Occasionally, the conversation could turn heated, as when a conservative columnist from the Wall Street Journal was the guest, and he and Godfrey got into a bitter argument about what the right wing was doing to America.

Godfrey, of course, spent much of his career in the United States and was profoundly knowledgeable about American history and politics. I thought of him often when I returned after a decade overseas and found myself covering Hillary Clinton at the State Department and Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the White House. He would have savored those characters, much as he did JFK, LBJ, Martin Luther King, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and the other giants who were the subjects of his biographies.

Godfrey’s enthusiasm for almost any subject was infectious. I recall a presentation I made to our class of fellows about the media moguls of the 1990s – Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Sumner Redstone – a cohort of titans I had covered as a media reporter in the Times’s business section before going abroad. Godfrey quizzed me for at least half an hour, relishing the gossip about Murdoch and his latest predations.

Godfrey with other former fellowship directors
Godfrey Hodgson (right), with former Fellowship Directors James Painter (left) and Paddy Coulter (centre)

While Godfrey was not an Asia hand, he had a foreign correspondent’s feel for what was going to be important there. In the research paper I wrote while at Oxford about the handover, he encouraged me to focus on the role of the rule of law, and Hong Kong’s British legal system, in its future success. Twenty-three years later, China’s ruthless imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong proved his point.

Godfrey was also generous with his contacts. When I arrived in Oxford, he introduced me to Neville Maxwell, a former director of the Reuters program and foreign correspondent with a long history of writing about China. Neville invited me to his home for a series of conversations about the Sino-British negotiation over Hong Kong, about which he had many strong opinions.

I recall my time in Oxford with fondness, and Godfrey was a big part of that. He asked that the fellows throw themselves into the program (I remember he once praised my wife for staying back in New York and letting me come to Oxford on my own because I would have fewer distractions. I reminded him that she had a good job there). In return, he was a dedicated and passionate director.

Godfrey pressed us to think and learn. As much as anyone, he made sure that when we left Oxford, we were richer for the experience.

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