Philip Hobsbaum (1932-2005): Ghosts in the archive – Stewart Parker

 history remains first and foremost an encounter with death

Arlette Farge, The Lure of the Archives (Yale Univ. Press, 2013), 8.

It might appear somewhat obvious to be talking about ghosts in the archive, as archival collections by their very nature are perhaps the natural residing places for ghosts and as Arlette Farage noted ‘an encounter with death’.  After all, the normal route of a collection into an archive often comes with the death of the author, although not always.  Yet, what struck me while cataloguing the series of papers MS Hobsbaum B: Writers was the various types of ghosts that flitted about the files and how their presence not only tracks Hobsbaum’s career, but also demonstrates the various roles and responsibilities that Philip adopted throughout his working life.

MS Hobsbaum BP/1: Stewart Parker

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Interim will + testament of James Stewart Parker: to have my ashes transported on to the British Rail Ferry at Stranraer, as a last hopeless gesture of support for state ownership, the urn to be dropped over the side, at a mid-way point on the journey to Larne, into the irradiated waters of St. George’s Channel.  Thus to be laid at rest in the half-way house in which I was born.

Extract from LR from Marilynn Richtarik, 28 Aug 1998 [MS Hobsbaum BP/1]

Our next writer, Stewart Parker, was a student of Hobsbaum’s at Queen’s University, Belfast, and a member of the Belfast Group.

‘With nothing more than a vague idea that he wanted to do his Master’s research on an American topic, Parker arrived for his first meeting with his supervisor in October 1963. Philip Hobsbaum had been hired the previous autumn…. He already knew Parker by name, sight, and reputation, but they had not yet made one another’s acquaintance. His first distinct impression of Parker on this occasion was a heavy ‘clump, clump, clump … up the stairs’—‘like a ghost in galoshes’. His second was of a baby-faced young man with ‘a very resonant, clear voice’. ‘I took to him very much’, Hobsbaum later recalled, forthwith inviting Parker to become one of the founding members of the Belfast Writers’ Group he was organizing.’

Queen’s was Philip’s first academic teaching post, having been initially appointed as Assistant Lecturer in the Department of English in 1962.  He was to spend four years at the University, and as well as his academic role and the facilitating of the Belfast Group, Philip was also still writing his own doctoral thesis.

Hobsbaum later stated in his paper ‘Seamus Heaney and the Belfast Group’:

For me, Stewart Parker was a star from the very beginning, in prose fiction as in other genres.

Stewart Parker died of cancer at the age of 47, and Philip was asked to write his biography for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Within the collection are the notes, press cuttings and correspondence collated by Hobsbaum in his preparation of the biography, along with his ms report on Parker’s thesis and a letter of recommendation.  In the preparation of the biography Hobsbaum not only consulted his own records, but also contacted Parker’s biographer, Marilynn Richtarik.

Richtarik had first written to Hobsbaum while a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia in 1994, when she had been researching her biography of Parker.  Hobsbaum had been very supportive of her project and had sent copies of correspondence and Group sheets.  When it came to writing his own biography Richtarik reciprocated, and forwarded Philip biographical data and more contextual information, answering his numbered questions in an email.  Philip was clearly looking for clarification regarding details such as, which leg had been amputated as part of Parker’s earlier treatment for bone cancer at the age of 19; and where his ashes had been scattered.

Parker’s studies at Queen’s University were impeded by the onset of cancer, apparently initiated by a kick on the kneecap while playing football. He spent most of a year in hospital, during which he suffered the amputation of his left leg. Previous to this, he had been keen on amateur theatricals. With his sturdy build, cherubic countenance, and rich baritone voice, he might well have made his way as a performer. The voice, at least, never left him; he was always a notable reader of his own—and other people’s—work.

Writing the biography for one of his students might have been somewhat disconcerting for Philip, but being asked to do it would also no doubt have meant a lot.  In his correspondence with Richtarik he is keen to underline his role as mentor before acknowledging that Parker had cut him out of his life  ‘I was hurt to find that he had lived in Edinburgh all that time without so much as a card or a phone call – I had no idea he was there.’


Cataloguing of the Hobsbaum papers is ongoing. Please enquire in advance regarding access by emailing


MS Hobsbaum BP/1: [James] Stewart Parker (1986-2004) 2 boxes

Hobsbaum, Philip. “Parker, (James) Stewart (1941–1988), playwright and writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 5 Mar. 2018.

Marilynn Richtarik Stewart Parker: A Life Oxford University Press, 2012

Philip Hobsbaum ‘Seamus Heaney and the Belfast Group’ The 26th International Symposium of Arts: The National Academy of Arts: The Republic of Korea, 1997





Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Special Collections

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