Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Friendship

Thanks to this blog, news has just reached me of the death of my old friend and colleague Denis Keating. We had lost touch, but a mutual friend searched and found me on the internet. Denis was the person who christened me "Plump" and we shared an office together at the old College of Adult Education until it closed. He was a brilliant, supportive and totally bizarre friend. And as one of the people who was a central part of a formative and happy period of my life, he has never been forgotten; a big character, with deep reserves of kindness and decency, and even deeper ones of bullshit.

So where do you start with Denis? There are too many stories. To give you a flavour of the man, this is something I wrote a few years back for the newsletter of the Galatea Trust, an organisation that promotes therapeutic environments.
The College could not have been a better building in which to work. It was modern, well equipped and purpose built for adult education. However, within this smart, comfortable environment there remained a small corner of squalor. Denis's office. When Denis and I finally shared a room it was a partnership made in hell. I have never been the tidiest of people and Denis was certainly not the most domesticated. He never used a handkerchief. Instead he blew his nose on a large shabby towel which lay in a crumpled heap on a corner of his desk. I never saw it changed in the eight years I worked there. When the place closed we found one of his past meals under a pile of handouts, dried, shrivelled and welded to the plate. This was in keeping with the mould encrusted coffee cups balanced precariously on the radiator and the all pervading smell of his pipe. The cleaners had long since abandoned any hope of anything but the most perfunctory vacuuming. Not only that but we covered the walls with photographs with satirical captions and then Denis indulged his passion for American Studies by plastering the wall with memorabilia. Unfortunately this consisted mainly of chocolate bar wrappers and other forms of packaging. Thus we sat in splendour. Tatty, dirty and with a collection of American litter bluetacked onto the surroundings. The office did not fit the definition of a therapeutic environment. The students loved it. It was always full.

Denis is one of the finest adult educators with whom I have worked. But it was not just this that brought in the people, nor was it a craving for passive smoking. They liked the office. Why on earth should this be so? At first the answer seemed simple. We justified our appalling habits by claiming they were a device whereby we removed the barriers of pomposity and showed that education could indeed be for all. As one student memorably wrote in my leaving card from my subsequent job: "Thank you for showing us that a bad example can still make a living". It may have been squalid but it was fun.
Of course there is more to it than that, something much more subversive, the office wasn't boring (though we did have a cardboard boreometer on the wall - don't ask) and boredom is a tool of oppression. What is odd is that I am really quite fastidious. The office was funny and Denis made laugh - every day - so I went along with it.

I can't resist another story. Denis had the most noxious, poisonous farts of any man on earth. They seemed to roll down his trouser legs, seep out and hang heavy, close to the ground, like a carpet of mustard gas. They were foul. He could always see me coming into work from the office window, so, on occasions, he would wait until I started climbing the stairs then he would let rip, walk out and shut the door. I would open up to be greeted with an appalling stench. But he had more imagination than to leave it at that. He would walk down to the coffee bar, find the most attractive young female student he could see and say to her, "Peter would like a word in the office". As I stood there cursing the unique strain of bacteria that could produce something so gut-wrenchingly awful, the student would walk in, slowly turn green and try not to mention the obvious.

"Those were the days when we used to work nights", that was one of his catchphrases. But they were the days, the ones before bureaucracy, normality and suffocating respectability set in to tame the anarchic and the creative forces that make education fun. An old and, in many ways, better world is dying. And underneath the boisterousness, there was a seriousness, a commitment to adult education and, as a former mature student himself, a contempt for the demeaning pomposity that wrote off working class people. At heart, he was an idealist with an instinctive socialism bred from experience. It is just that it was expressed in rather odd ways.

As an adult educator Denis touched many lives (in more ways than one!), as a colleague he certainly affected mine. I hate the fact that I hadn't seen him for years and I loved the man. Tonight I feel bereft.

1 comment:

Ann oDyne said...

... I doubt a fart could be smaudible above the pipe-reek, rotting food and mouldy coffee dregs.

... and what made that student think your bad example was 'making a living'? compared to what?
but what a brilliant piece.