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15 September: Everyone Has a Teacher Story

Published onJul 09, 2019
15 September: Everyone Has a Teacher Story

It will seem odd – I am sure – but I still feel a shudder of anxiety when receiving an invitation to an academic dinner or function. It’s the informality of these occasions that still throws me even after more than twenty years. Perhaps it is a lingering trace of the awkward 18-year-old Goldsmiths student, who, when offered a cup of Earl Grey tea in the first week by his hall of residence neighbour, said he thought the milk was off! So, when I received an invitation to attend the Fellows’ Dinner – a large black-tie banquet held at Goldsmiths to celebrate the award of honorary degrees at graduation – it provoked a discomforting feeling, as if I was already wearing the ill-fitting suit that I would need to dust off for the occasion.

This was all worry for no reason of course. When I arrived at the dinner I saw to my delight I was placed at a table with anti-racist campaigner Doreen Lawrence and Marxist geographer David Harvey – both had received honorary degrees this year. Also, sitting next to me was one of my favourite Goldsmiths colleagues, Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media Studies and one of the key figures in the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign against journalistic abuses. Sitting next to me on the other side, was Professor Harvey’s date for the evening, a wonderful woman called Jane Shallice. Jane explained that she is a teacher and had worked in London for many years. She told great stories of school life but also of her increasing dismay at government policy on education and the damage it was doing.

Jane asked me about my own experience of schooling and how I had ended up going to university. I explained that I had a special teacher. I guess ‘everyone has a teacher story’, I remember saying. Mine was my form tutor who had chosen to work in a large comprehensive school in Croydon for political reasons. He had a real sense of humour. I explained that when I was studying the Russian revolution he loaned me a beautiful boxed edition of Trotsky’s multi-volume history. Almost startled, Jane said: ‘You don’t mean Dave Finch, do you?’ I nodded and said ‘Yes, that’s right.’ She paused, then with sadness on her face continued: ‘I am really sorry to tell you but Dave died in February.’ It was devastating news.

Although we had not spoken for a while, Dave and I had been in regular contact. We started to meet again after he had read something I had written in The Guardian newspaper criticizing the government’s immigration policy that promoted an atmosphere of racism. He emailed me and it was the first contact I had with him for almost fifteen years. I remember the conversation we had on the phone after he had read the article. He said approvingly, ‘glad to hear you haven’t changed your accent much’. He subsequently came to my inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths in 2005 that marked my promotion to Professor of Sociology. Always the teacher, he playfully offered his critique afterwards and encouraged me to be more politically forthright.

When asked his age Dave Finch liked to say that he was born in Stoke Newington ‘three years after the Russian revolution’. He was one of six children of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Ukraine. His father made fur coats and his mother was a machinist. Like many Jewish working-class households in the thirties, political arguments were standard fare at the dinner table. He told me these ranged from the latest news from Russia to the execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States in 1927. Education was his way of creating a new kind of life and he attended University College London where he studied chemistry.

In 1943 he joined the newly formed Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party linked to the Fourth International. After the war Dave decided to join the Labour Party as part of an organized revolutionary faction aimed at changing the party from within. The leadership at the time decided that the activists should get closer to the working class. Dave and several others were sent off to become miners in Cannock, where they quickly became organizers of the pit committee. After a mining accident in which Dave was injured he came back to London and he returned to chemistry. Between 1948 and 1952 he worked as an industrial chemist at Deptford power station. He was ‘eased out’ – as he put it – by his boss, who was an active Tory, and didn’t like him talking to the apprentices about politics.

Anger about the injustices at the heart of class-divided society stayed with Dave all his life. But he was not an angry man. Rather he was a charming rogue – particularly in the company of women – able to make a political point or an educational observation with a laugh and a joke. In the 1960s Dave switched tack again to pursue a new career, this time in teaching. At John Newnham High School – where I met him – he taught science and he was particularly active in the National Union of Teachers.

People in Croydon used to joke – sometimes derisively – about Dave Finch and ‘The People’s Republic of John Newnham.’ My father – who worked in factories all his life – loved him; Dave was never condescending to the working-class parents who came to the school, although he was often quite searching in his criticism of them. But comments like ‘you know your son should really be doing better in Chemistry’ were always delivered with a wry and knowing smile. With ‘Finchy’ you might have to listen to a few home truths but you accepted them from him because in some deep way you realized he understood your world.

Dave didn’t teach me much chemistry, although I wonder sometimes whether my fascination with the writings of Primo Levi – the Italian chemist and Auschwitz survivor – is not in some way linked to him. Through lending me his personal copies of Friedrich Engels’s Origin of the Family Private Property and The State he taught me a deep lesson about fostering a love of books and ideas.

For example, he loaned me a book by Tom Wintringham called Mutiny which had a really strong impact on me; I can still feel its blue canvas cover and those pages yellowed by time. The book is a survey of mutinies throughout history from the Spartacus slave rebellion to the Invergordon mutiny of 1931. Wintringham showed that in each case their history had been revised and the facts changed. These were books not on the official curriculum, but Dave introduced me to their magic and also to critical scepticism. Things are ‘not what they seem’, he would always say.

Dave taught me that it is important for teachers to pass on a love and an excitement for reading and that the gift of a book can plant a seed in the life of its recipient. I wish there had been one last opportunity to thank him for this bequest. I think he knew though all along. My guess is he would have made light of it and laughed off such a weighty expression of gratitude.

Nevertheless, I feel the force of his example every time I find myself pulling a book off the shelf, handing it to a student saying ‘read this – it will help you understand. Things are not what they seem.’

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