In Praise of English Teachers
At the end of last year my old English teacher, Dave Hughes, died. I saw him last in the summer, when he came to my book signing in York, and admonished me for repeating words in the opening scenes of Shieldwall.
'It's meant to be poetic repetition,' I told him, but he wasn't convinced, and I think he was still marking me down.
We were supposed to go for a coffee, but he seemed distracted, and hurried off. I only found out later that he was suffering from bowel cancer, and that in five months he would be dead.
I meant to write personally to him, but in the end, his death came quicker than my letter, and all that arrived in time was a Facebook message. Less than I had intended, but then so much in life is so. But fitting perhaps, that it was on Facebook that he chronicled his decline.
His Facebook page is still there. I wonder how long it'll be before Facebook decide his account has been inactive for too long, and they clear away his account.
I was 13, in grade 3 at St Peter's School, York, when Dave became my English teacher, and he remained it, and I kept the same seat in the same class until I left school at 18. We went through 'O' levels and 'A' levels together: namely, the Miller's Tale, Auden's poetry, Macbeth, Hamlet, Douglas Dunn, and Rosencrantz and Guildernstern and Dead.
Dave was the kind of teacher who had something of the Dead Poet's Society about him, before the film or the concept came out. We called him Dave, rather than Sir. He had a curriculum in mini lessons that he gave to you at the beginning of term, and included his and other student's writings. He liked to recite chunks of the Canterbury Tales in middle English, and invited us to write modern versions: the Tax Collector's Tale; the Hairdresser's Tale; the Policeman's Tale. Before we were old enough to pass as 18, he used to invite me and a few friends over to his house on a Saturday night, and we sat in his living room, like juvenile Inklings, with our cans of John Smiths by our feet, and he talked to us as if we had something interesting worth saying.
That first lesson he taught us about speed reading, and let us ask him any questions we liked: and he answered them all. Though letting a class of 13 year old boys come up with questions was always inviting a degree of silliness.
There was a lot of distinctive things about Dave. He handed back your work with a sheet of footnotes on your work. These could run into 30s little numbered stars, with comments on a separate sheet. I remember the day he gave a short story I wrote, 36/40. Anything about 34 was great, 35 fabulous, and that 36 earned me a distinction in English, and a little early confirmation that I might have a gift.
I told him, or perhaps my parents did at parents night, that I both loved Tolkien and wanted to be an author. Both seemed embarrassing details at the time. But Dave was kind and considerate, and I think he shared my love of Northern literature. He was of course, drawn to mountains, and tragically to Norway, where his friend, and my chemistry teacher, died in a climbing accident on the Svartisen Icecap, in Arctic Norway in 1986. And he had poems published in a journal called Giant Steps, alongside names now well known, like Simon Armitage and Helen Dunmore. My first signed book: and knowing an author seemed such an important step towards becoming one myself.
Even though I now have many other signed copies - from more renowned authors - Dave's collection of poems keeps it's prized place.
And this morning as I brought it down, I found tucked inside a bundle of his curriculum, with the distinctive typeface he used.
It was odd reading his Facebook posts. He had a gift for language of course, but the most poignant thing Dave wrote on his Facebook account, was 26th October.
NOT a good week so far... Felt terribly weak - and had to abandon a stay with Mum and Dad when reflections of each other other simply made us aware of what each side was losing. I rode the stair-lift and Dad could only say, this was meant for me, not for you.
But feeling better: if I can have another transfusion, it could make all the difference. Do call soon if you plan to call at all....
And when a friend promised to visit after Christmas, he wrote:
David Hughes: won't be here till then, Sorry
But rather than these as his last words, perhaps better would be his poem Valediction, for his friend Barry Daniels, who died attempting to save a student who had fallen into a crevasse. I think much of this would apply equally well to Dave:
You'd much prefer a place where gods might hike
on sponsored walks that you could organise -
to build a climbing wall, or something like.
Your sort of heaven should have lowering skies
that always look like rain, but never quite
make up their minds - then soak you by surprise
and leave you squelching in your tent all night
with sodden sleeping bag and wrinkled feet,
damp boots, wet breeches, shrinking till they're tight.
When morning hammers in with wind and sleet,
disgusting though it seems, your flapping tent
must feel a bit like heaven: twelve square feet
comparatively dry, where you're content
to fester till they call you. Then in haste
you'll shudder into clothes: it's time you went.
I hope your lunch is always Lion Bar waste
or greenfruit pastilles - nowhere near a stream
to swill away their sickly after-taste
It don't take much of those to make it seem
that reindeer pate, marmalade and bread
are things you've never eaten, just a dream.
But dreams aren't thinks confined to food or bed:
your waking, walking dreams inspired us all
to want to follow paths you chose and led -
and led us safely till your own one fall,
your fatal stumble where our paths all fork.
I mostly hope your heaven holds lands that call
where all their better bits are three months walk
through glaciated valleys, peak on peak,
that shadow, loom, and avalanche; and talk
must always plan in detail, week by week,
the many first ascents that wait for you:
those marvellous, untrod summits you still seek.
After posting this I went in search of some of Dave's poems, but came across this instead, which says a lot about what a distinctive man Dave was.