University teachers shouldn’t survive their students. This isn’t a matter of thinking of our students as the medium through which to secure immortality or as disciples who will carry our wisdom beyond our lifetime. Neither is this about securing what some writers and thinkers call ‘a legacy’. No, there is something wicked and evil about the extinguishing of a young life in the middle of a life-changing experience like studying at university. Our students’ enthusiasm and sincerity can be exasperating and yet they often gift us a reminder not to let our most cherished commitments slip away.
‘It will only take about twenty minutes to a half an hour’, Paul said when we arranged to meet and talk about his Deptford Town Hall radio project. It wasn’t the first time we’d spoken, but it was to be the first of many conversations about our shared interests in empire, racism, music and cultural politics. It will be of no surprise to anyone who knew Paul Hendrich that the twenty minutes actually stretched to well over three hours of intense but joyful discussion. Paul not only liked to talk – much more, he liked to listen.
One of his special qualities was the time he took to pay attention to others, to care about them. He made time for people, often enabling them to take time to think more carefully for themselves and about themselves. That afternoon he asked me, ‘What is it that you think you are doing with your work – not just your writing but also your teaching?’
I thought for more than a moment; his questions often had that effect. ‘I think my job is to make myself obsolete.’ He turned his head; the expression on his face was slightly pained, as if hearing the suggestion almost hurt physically. His friends and loved ones will know exactly the look I am talking about.
‘No? Really? You don’t mean that’, Paul replied. I assured him that I did. ‘I think my job is to carry ideas, problems and political commitments as far as I can – and then let other people pick them up, make them their own in ways that are beyond my capacity.’ He smiled, that huge smile of his, and nodded with approval. Our meeting would have probably gone on much longer than three hours had the Goldsmiths porters not insisted that it was time to lock up and go home.
Paul’s death robbed us of his extraordinary ability to give and take time. At his memorial in Goldsmiths’ Great Hall, a young refugee whom Paul had worked with spoke about the way he ‘always seemed to have time for you’. Paul’s life is a much needed example of the best values of education, values that are in danger of being lost in the haze of academic selfishness and pressure. Alpa, his PhD supervisor, told me that Paul had spoken often of our talks. ‘He wanted to be like you’, she said. Hard words to hear – I certainly didn’t deserve that admiration. On the contrary, I left the Great Hall that sunny afternoon feeling a desperate desire to be more like him.
Paul was playful in even the most serious things, a kind of theatrical seriousness. His politics and his projects were often coloured by a capacity to make the most terrible issues fun, while at the same time naming shameful historical injustices. His political style had a nod to Situationism, but also a humorous wink of comic genius. The Deptford Pirates project and his work around the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade are good examples of this combination. I don’t think I really appreciated this during his lifetime, but it is a lasting memory now. Less the beach underneath the cobblestones, than a pirate’s treasure buried somewhere underneath the tarmac of south London’s A2 that passes by Goldsmiths and the road the links the city to the green hinterlands of Kent.
He was also a gentle person; it was part of his general openness to people and life’s prospects. He was a living refusal of the urban maxim, ‘The world will make you hard.’ No, the world doesn’t make us hard, it makes us soft, vulnerable and lays us bare to the steel structures of modern life and hatreds that are set hard in our city like concrete. Paul refused to live life in that way; he just refused to be hardened. He rode his bicycle and he was crushed by the juggernaut of metropolitan hardness.
Returning home after his memorial, a wonderful celebration of Paul’s personality and his many qualities, my daughter asked, ‘What is wrong, Dad?’ I said softly, turning away, unable to hide rheumy eyes, ‘You shouldn’t survive your students, you shouldn’t survive your students.’
Not that Paul was ever a student of mine. Perhaps we studied some of the same questions and struggled together with similar problems. He should have taken my place. I know he would have found answers with more grace, style and humour. Those gifts have been stolen from us, along with the many other wonderful things that he would have inevitably scattered through our lives. We can cherish his example and his memory, but there is no gilding over the sadness of a talent, and a life, cut short so pointlessly.