For me it was art, literature and history at school. My three favourite subjects. Drawing and painting interested and inspired me. I could kinda disappear into my own world. Back then it was all about gaining knowledge, ideas and new things I could learn about. My other place I would disappear in was the local library. Delving into various fictional worlds and then moving to the politics and history sections. So many books, the length and breadth of the library sections upon sections of books to explore.
The sticking point for me regards to literature was Jane Austen. I couldn’t get my head around her work, and I had to as I was studying Pride and Prejudice for O Level. Inevitably my lack of interest in Austen got me kicked out. My then teacher was a Austen fan, a rank Tory to boot. He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. Mutual loathing. He enjoyed patronising and undermining me in a rather tedious and sexist manner. To this day when I pick up an Austen novel I think of those awful days being taught by him. It’s like some strange aversion therapy. Austen = sickness to the gut. No doubt it is very unfair to Jane Austen and I really should get over this and give her a fair chance.The day came to leave his class and I did feeling hopeless and a failure. I was now shunted to another English Lit class taught by this guy, Nick Mills (or as in school parlance…Mr Mills but I will refer to him as Nick). He was this big hulking six footer, not fat just hefty. I had already been taught English Language before by him. Entering the classroom after being unceremoniously kicked out he told me he was surprised to see me.
“Why are you here”?
“Because I wouldn’t take Jane Austen seriously”.
He chuckled, and told me he had studied “Sense and Sensibility” for A Level and didn’t particularly get on with it.
Going from Austen and the poetry of Betjeman to social and political realism, for that was Nick’s speciality, woke me up from my slumber. I liked Shakespeare (Macbeth) and the poetry of Wilfred Owen. But now I was studying Animal Farm (Orwell), An Inspector Calls (Priestley), Kes (Barry Hines), Whose Life Is It Anyway (Brian Clark), along with the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson. Unfortunately, the books I studied were all by men (women only existed when I studied A Level Literature…but that’s another story about a former drink soaked leftie teacher).
As part of English Language O Level I had to write discursive essays and this would initiate discussions in the classroom. One subject was on whether the UK should re-introduce capital punishment. Back then, as still now, I am opposed to capital punishment. Out of about 30 in the classroom around 5 of us opposed it. Nick was unimpressed with the classroom pro-hanging lobby.
‘What are you Sun readers”?
He explained his position of the subject, “Cards on the table, I oppose the death penalty”. He mentioned miscarriages of justice, how wrong execution is, the barbarity of state murder. He very much opposed the death penalty. My estimation for him increased dramatically.
Every Friday he would bring in a film video usually social and political realism (one week was the class’s choice unfortunately it was always the lads who ended up choosing some macho Hollywood crap like Rambo!). We would watch “If”, “Kes”, “Equus” (I had to get my mother’s permission to watch this X film, she hesitated in signing the bit of paper and had to remind her I had seen it before when younger and if she didn’t sign it it would be ridiculous as I knew what it was about). I looked forward to Nick’s choice in films.
As someone at the time whose left-wing ideas were burgeoning and developing I found Nick’s teaching a beacon of hope. It spurred on my interest. Unlike previous teacher, he really did encourage me. Sometimes we would chat briefly at the end of the class about Orwell, especially, and Animal Farm. Orwell’s interpretation of the Soviet Union, the characterisation of Snowball and Napoleon, Stalinism and Trotskyism. I liked these chats because I felt like an equal and that someone was interested in my views.
I learned about the Spanish Civil War and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. I checked out as many books I could on Orwell from the local library. Nick also brought us some 20th century history books to give us some political context about the Russian Revolution. He thumbed through the pages and started reading the chapter on the Russian Revolution. Eventually he slammed the book down in disgust on the desk remarking, “Who the hell wrote this, Margaret Thatcher”!! I was at school during the height of Thatcherism….
He then gave his own interpretation and understanding of why the Russian Revolution happened. Looking back I do wonder which Trot group he belonged to…..Though I knew he was a union rep for the NUT.
During that time I did feel like an outsider with these views and talking to Nick, I felt like less of a “Commie freak”
As part of my O Level Language course I had to pass an oral exam, where I had to speak in a one-to-one setting with a teacher for 10 mins. Come the day, it had to be said (from discussions I had with others about their 10 mins talk) there was a definite gender division. Boys talked about their favourite football teams while girls talked about recipes.
Then it was my turn, I entered the room and found Nick looking glazed and bored slumped in a chair.
“You going to talk to me about making profiteroles”?
“No, I will talk about George Orwell”
Nick sat bolt upright and smiled. For 10 mins I spoke freely about Orwell and what he meant to me. Nick asked me what I thought Orwell would have made of Thatcherism. It was good 10 mins where we chatted about ideas and Orwell’s works.
I haven’t got many teachers I can look back fondly at. I count them on my one hand, to be honest (and thinking about it they were left-wing). Nick was one of them. The ones I think highly are the ones who didn’t patronise or undermine me, where I was some invisible kid. Those merge into an anonymous blob filed under “useless bullies”. The teachers that made a mark on me where the ones who encouraged me (confidence wise too), listened, and treated me with respect and overall noticed me. Also, wise advice such as always question things, don’t just accept what you are told and don’t jump to conclusions.
The reason I write about Nick Mills is become I was looking on some forum a week or so ago connected to where I grew up. My old school was mentioned along with his name. The person commenting had fond memories of Nick because he introduced him to Keats (I studied him for my A Level Literature) along with not-so-fond memories of the educational system that was undermining along with the they “wouldn’t amount to much”. But amongst all this negativity and put downs I wonder if any of these teachers think about the power they wield using it to consciously damage and destroy? Or do they just enjoy the power that corrupts in the end?
Anyway, at the end of this person’s comments I read that Nick had died from cancer some years ago I confess I was overwhelmed with sadness. The comments ended with “then may God bless his spirit as he was the man who started my love of poetry”. As an atheist I am not religious but I can relate to the part about poetry. Nick introduced my class to WH Auden and I used to know September 1st 1939 off by heart, but now I remember scraps of it. Age and all that. This is the stanza do remember. I think it’s because it refers to Eros and in one the lessons there was a discussion about Agape and Eros, Auden’s meaning and hopeful tone of that final stanza.
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
So I would like to thank Nick for encouraging me and building up my confidence (though sometimes I would babble on without much structure back then at the end of lesson… I sometimes wondered if he was bemused by my over excitement). But above all listening to me and not dismissing my fanciful views on creating an equitable society. Though he too held those fanciful views on socialism. And for introducing me to the works of Orwell.