This weekend has been a bitter-sweet affair. On Friday, I celebrated my 48th birthday. It was a beautiful evening spent with friends, slowly getting drunk, ruminating on life, love and loss and, as usual, talking bollocks – note to foreign readers, bollocks is British slang for testicles, but in this instance can be substituted for nonsense. We sampled a few of Birmingham’s finest drinking holes, made fun of each other, swapped news and decided to meet up again in the summer to really get to the heart of whatever shite it was we were talking about. One of my mates bought a copy of my book, Night Swimming, for me to sign, which was an unexpected pleasure, and as I was signing, he told me that my old English teacher, Mr Alsop, had died. This was a shock.
A few of us had stayed in touch with Mr Alsop. Some of the lads saw him around town, and one even joined in the weekly pub quiz that he ran. Most of my contact with him, apart from the occasional pint when I was in town, was through social media. Those of you who read this blog will know that I gave up Facebook just after Christmas. The giving up of Facebook has been a real liberation regarding work output and quality time and is something I would highly recommend. Well, I would recommend it as long as you stay in touch with people via other means. My blog posts and tweets still post through onto Facebook and, despite me announcing my leaving the site, my mates assumed I was still on it and knew that Mr Alsop was ill.
Alsop, as we called him, was a brilliant teacher. I went to a rough school. Learning wasn’t the top priority of most pupils or even teachers, and discipline could be tenuous at best in some lessons. An example I often use to illustrate how rough the school was, is the time a pupil brought in some live ammunition and threw it into the metalwork furnace – that was an interesting day. There are many others I could use. Some teachers had no control; their lessons were exercises in shouting and threats. Learning outcomes didn’t exist then, although I guess there must’ve been a plan of sorts – I seemed to spend a lot of time copying stuff off the board and staring out the window. But Alsop was different. He commanded the classroom with his physical presence, his love of his subject, English, and his scathing wit. No one pissed about in his lesson, and you learnt stuff. I remember, at the height of the miner’s strike in the 80’s, a load of us decided to go on strike and walked out of the school gates after break. We refused to go back into school and jeered at whichever teacher it was that tried to get us back in. Alsop walked out, said, ‘In’ and everyone shuffled in without a murmur – you didn’t mess with Mr Alsop.
He had a genuine love of literature, from Chaucer to John Cooper Clarke, Shakespeare to Douglas Adams, Thomas Hardy to Joe Strummer and everything in between. And his energy and enthusiasm were contagious. We were studying Evelyn Waugh’s, Men At Arms, and he delivered it with such insight and passion that I went on and read the other two books in the trilogy. I already had a love of reading before I met Mr Alsop, but he helped to focus it and showed all of us that words are important and that when they are combined in the right order, with the right intent, they can have a profound effect upon the reader. It only takes one bad teacher to put you off a subject for life. I was lucky; I had an excellent one.
I wanted to thank him for giving me, and all those he taught, such a rewarding time at school. For being so passionate about literature and creativity and for giving a shit. I mention him in the thanks section of, Night Swimming, but he died before he got a copy. I’m hoping to make his funeral in two weeks time. I know there will be lots of ex pupils there wanting to pay their respects. Here’s to you Mr Alsop, ‘So long and thanks for all the fish.’