Reflections on two deaths

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Last month my A-Level politics teacher dropped dead. Of the three lecturers I had at college, only one’s now still alive, and in the last week I’ve been thinking about the two that aren’t.

At the time, I took them completely for granted. I liked them, more than enough to want to keep in touch with them after I left, but in both cases I didn’t – I assumed they would be around forever. There was no rush to get back in contact, because they would always be there. And I only appreciated how much they’d impacted my life until after they were dead.

Benjamin died first. He taught me second year English Literature from 2008 to 2009, and was a kind, happy, sweet-natured man who brought gasket-blowing enthusiasm and an almost childlike sense of wonder to everything he did.

He was posh, floppy-haired and sheltered – his innocence and thorough-going ignorance of the modern world could range from quaint and endearing to borderline frightening. He was so utterly devoid of cynicism you worried someone would scam him or harm him or otherwise take advantage of his unsullied good nature. Sometimes I wondered how he’d made it to his late thirties without exposure to the grittier realities of life. Occasionally, it was annoying. More often than not, it made him an exceptionally pleasant person to be around.

I think he liked us as a class but found us baffling. He lived in this artsy fluffy perennially sunny bubble – writing strange, literary, spirituality-themed folk music and teaching English on the side to pay the bills. By contrast, we lived in a gritty, deprived post-industrial town with no prospects. He was upbeat and almost painfully earnest. We were extremely cynical. He was appalled by what he saw as our defeatism and negativity, and just didn’t get anything spiky or angry or oppositional. One afternoon I walked in with a copy of the Morning Star and it blew his mind.

In all honesty, I don’t think he was all that engaged in teaching us. He clearly loved the subject – he vividly brought the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to life to the extent I can still recount bits of it nearly a decade later. But he’d spend half the time in the staff room across the hall printing out stuff for various other projects – usually his other job as an arty-alternative psychotherapist and his music. Those things were where his passion really lay.

Sometimes he’d bring his CDs in to play to us. He’d spent thousands getting his music recorded. More often than not it was horribly overproduced. He needed to pare it right back to him and his guitar, I reckon. But because at the time we were grouchy teenagers who scoffed at anything sincere, we just sniggered rather than offering constructive criticism. Looking back, I wish I’d been more encouraging.

It didn’t matter, because nothing seemed to bother him. His ignorance and his naivety bought him one huge, enviable life advantage – he was the most straightforwardly happy man I’ve ever met. I’ll always remember the last day I saw him – the last English lesson we had before taking our final A Level exams and leaving college for good. The lesson went as normal. Then, at the end, he stood up, gave us all a big, cheery grin, said something along the lines of “good luck, and all the best for the future!”, and then bounded out of our lives the same way he’d bounded into them every Monday morning. He knew he’d never see us again, and, in the best possible way, he didn’t give a damn.

I never spoke to him again. Occasionally I’d stalk him on social media to see how his music career was going. In 2014, I looked him up and found out he had leukaemia. I was shocked, but it never even occurred to me it would kill him. He was too young and vibrant. I imagined he’d struggle with it for a while, it would be unpleasant, but he would eventually shrug it off. I toyed with the idea of sending him a letter to try and cheer him up a bit, but didn’t. I wish I had done. Earlier this year, I went looking for him again and found out he was dead. The cancer finally killed him in August 2015. He was 45.

Benjamin wasn’t much cop as a teacher, but he was a good man. He was an exceptionally cheery, positive and encouraging person to have around when frightening adulthood loomed and everything seemed grim and you had no idea what you wanted to do with your life. He often spoke fondly of a young daughter, who’ll be about 18 now, who I find myself thinking about a lot these days.

I only remembered the other day – it was only because of him leaping in to teach an extra English Literature class that I got to university. At first, it looked like a timetable clash meant I wouldn’t be able to do the three subjects I needed to get in. Broadly, I hated Cambridge – as, funnily enough, Benjamin had hated his time at university – but for better or for worse, it made me the person I am today, and for that I’ll always be hugely thankful to him.

Dave taught me Politics for two years from September 2007 to summer 2009. He was old. At the time, I would’ve probably said late fifties, maybe sixty, but it turns out he would’ve already been 64, nearly 65. He was one of the most, if not the most, colourful, vibrant, interesting human being(s) I’ve ever had the fortune to come across. He’d lived about ten different lives and they were all fascinating.

He was short, bald, camp and eccentric, and, at the same time, exceptionally knowledgeable about the world and exceptionally wise. He was like Frankie Howard crossed with Yoda. He was a real-world Willy Wonka – slaloming from silliness to highbrow profundity and back again in the same sentence, and replete with arcane knowledge of the British constitution, the American electoral process, and classical civilisation. He could go from essaying at length on Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment of early American democracy and Voltaire’s influence on the Founding Fathers to exclaiming “Florida looks like a willy!”. He was a polymath, a latter-day renaissance man, almost certainly a genius, and a true, indisputable individual.

As a teacher, he was kind, fun, funny, engaging and extraordinary patient – he gently persevered with students I would’ve long since thrown out a window. The curriculum we were studying, frankly, was often extremely dull – the tedious ins and outs of the Houses of Parliament, the EU, and so on. But he made it better. No mortal man can make the EU interesting – but, if they’re as naturally and effortlessly fun and charismatic as Dave was, they can certainly make studying it a lot more bearable.

He had catchphrases in spades – if you piped up with the right answer, it was ‘go to the top of the class!’ or ‘he doesn’t say much, but every word’s a gem!’. If you looked as suicidally bored as anyone studying the House of Commons committee structure has every right to, he’d go ‘don’t yawn, this is the interesting bit!’. At break-time, it was ‘time for a wee and a tea’. And if he was feeling particularly unappreciated, he’d exasperatedly remind us that ‘I took three trains to get here’ (he lived in sunny seaside Torquay and commuted to work, having found life in the Somerset Levels deadly dull). My personal favourite, though, came when Dave had had enough, and sensed we had too – ‘I think we’ve come to a natural pause’, which basically meant, go home early.

Extremely rarely, someone will ask me why this blog’s called what it’s called, and what ‘Bem’ is. I’ve self-indulgently written about it in long-form elsewhere, but basically, Bem started out as a random nonsense word and evolved into a strange left-wing college subculture that went on to fundamentally shape my views and how I saw the world. And it all came out Dave’s Politics class – the crucible of the Bemolution, if you will.

Dave himself was fairly oblivious to it all, and who knows what he would’ve thought – more than once he told me he was an anarchist (by ‘anarchist’ I think he might’ve meant mischievously anti-establishment rather than radically anti-capitalist and in favour of rule by autonomous collectives, but who knows), but when he retired he stood for council as a Lib Dem (which he was at pains to tell me was only because in Torquay politics was either blue or yellow, and he certainly wasn’t a Tory).

But it was his relaxed, encouraging manner and tolerant classroom style that allowed me to cobble together the curmudgeonly and unorthodox radical socialist worldview that I’ve ended up with today. Dave wanted you to think for yourself. He loved gossip, controversy, anything edgy and racy and unconventional. And by setting that sort of tone at a pivotal moment in my life, just like Benjamin, he helped me become the person I am.

We were the last class Dave would ever teach. Having gently shepherded us through two years of A Level Politics, he retired, aged 66. I never saw him again. I spoke to him a fair few times through the magic of social media, particularly in my first years at university. But one day I grumpily deleted Facebook in a fit of disgust at the triviality-fixated hyper-individualist modern world – and, in addition to several hundred people I couldn’t give much of a damn about, lost contact with some incredibly valued friends, Dave among them.

It wouldn’t have taken much to re-establish contact. I remain good friends with my one surviving college lecturer. He was as close to Dave as anyone, and he could’ve given me an address or an email or a phone number in seconds. But I never asked. I always planned to – more than once I got about 10% of the way to trying to organise some sort of reunion summit in his beloved Torquay. But every time, I found myself afflicted with that same catastrophic complacency – Dave would be around forever. He’d live to 103 and peacefully kick the bucket in a retirement home where he’d have spent years delighting the staff with crude jokes and funny stories. It could wait.

As it happened, he had a mild heart attack earlier this year, had a much more major one in late September, entered a coma, and never woke up. He was 73.

When I heard, I was immediately enraged at my own stupidity. He was a portly septuagenarian who drunk too much and ate out every day (he’d still go round to his mother’s for tea when she was in her 90s). He wasn’t going to live forever and I was an idiot for treating him like he would. It’s a horrible cliché – but there was so much I’d always wanted to ask him and now never can. What was it like organising boycotts against South African oranges, which he did as a student in the 60s? What was it like working for the GLC under Ken Livingstone in the 80s, about the only time radical left-wingers have got a chance to run anything in British history? What was it like being a gay man in the era of Section 28? And so on, and so on, and so on.

I went down to Torquay for the funeral. So did a lot of his ex-colleagues from the college. Since he was single, never had kids and had no siblings or direct relatives left I was concerned that no-one would turn up. I should’ve known better – hundreds of people were there.

As almost always with funerals, it was a surreal experience. You can comprehend that the person’s dead, that they’re not coming back, but you can’t compute that that’s them there in that box.

The service itself was relatively upbeat and deliciously rude. Judging by the funeral directress’ face, she wasn’t used to eulogies featuring repeated use of the word cunt, but Dave would’ve approved. Some bits were uncomfortable – I can’t imagine Dave, who could quote Tacitus and Cicero at will and instantaneously translate into Latin and Ancient Greek, signing off on gag-inducingly twee rhymes about friendship and clichéd orations about life being like a book. But then again, that’s funerals for you – the full spectrum of a person’s magnificence, reduced to a few schmaltzy poems and a plate of cocktail sausages in the back room of a dingy pub.

Here’s the moral of the story: if there’s someone who you like, who you want to spend time with, who you want to thank and make aware of how much they’ve done for you – don’t wait. It doesn’t matter how old they are, or how healthy or seemingly invincible they are – do it now. They could live to 300, they could drop dead tomorrow. So could you. Do it now – or spent the rest of your life berating yourself for not spending more time with them when they were alive.