Daily Archives: July 16, 2012

An honour and a privilege

When I passed my O levels back in 1980 my Dad bought me a present. It was a Nikon EM 35mm SLR. I was only a kid and I couldn’t afford other lenses until I was a tad older, so I had to make the most of the 50mm lens that came with the camera. But where I grew up was adjacent to some old woods which at that time were full of many species of fungi, and as my passion for all things wild went back to when I was a youngster the fungi in the woods captured my imagination and provided plenty of subjects for some challenging photography.

Amanita citrina – the false death cap

One of the main challenges for anyone trying to photograph fungi is the lack of light in the leaf litter of a deciduous wood so I saved up and bought a flash gun for my new SLR. So very weekend I’d spend some time rooting around in the undergrowth trying to find species of fungi I’d never seen before, and I eventually amassed a sizeable collection of some pretty funky fungus pictures.

And then after my O levels I transmogrified rapidly into a stroppy teenage wastrel and almost failed my A levels, but I just managed to retrieve the situation in time to salvage my 6th form years. But only just.

Mucilago crustacea  – a slime mould

And that was largely as a result of weighing up my options with the biology teacher at my upper school who convinced me to stay back for another year to get an A level in biology to strengthen my application to do a biochemistry degree. His name was Alan Wright and he was incredibly encouraging and recommended that I squeeze the two year course into one year and apply for university straight away. Alan was one of those brilliant teachers who simply new what made clueless teenagers like me tick, so I did the A level in a year and went on to do my biochemistry degree.

My school had been a grammar school until the year I went there and a relic of it’s past was the annual prize giving. Alan, who had heard about my photography, told me that if I put together a written project based around my photographs he would put my name forward for the ‘Wake Natural History Prize‘, donated by Sir Hereward the Wake, hence the name. I did, he did, and I won the prize, which was a £15 book token. I spent it on a copy of Jacob Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of man’ which was presented to me at the prize giving by Lady Wake. (I lent that book to someone in the 1990’s and I never got it back and now I can’t remember who borrowed it. So if it was you can I please have it back!).

I still have the project and one day I’ll scan it and either post it here in it’s entirety or add a link to it.

Birch bracket on a silver birch stump at Backwarden in Essex

I got my degree, and then my Ph.d. and ended up working in Cambridge where I get down to the annual Cambridge Folk Festival as often as I can. And about 10 years ago I just happened to bump into my old biology teacher, Alan Wright. Meeting ones old teachers may not always be a pleasurable experience, but this was a man who I was really pleased to meet again and we hooked up at several Folk Festivals after that. We had lots to talk about and he was always keen to hear about the stuff I was doing at work.

Then in April I had an email from him to ask if I was going to the festival this year because he was being treated for lung cancer and was not expected to make it through the summer. This was shocking news and I hoped we would get the opportunity to meet up one more time. But alas, it didn’t come to pass, Alan died last week before we had a chance to get together.

Amanita muscaria – the fly agaric

A large chunk of anything I’ve achieved is a result of the encouragement and assistance from Alan, at a time of my life when I needed a good kick up the catflap. He was passionately into the science and only weeks before he died we swapped emails when I told him about a paper I’ve been working on, about which, even in the plight he was in, he showed huge interest, and he was very enthusiastic about The Naturephile too. He’ll be massively missed by an awful lot of people, I’m sure there are plenty more like me who have benefited from crossing his path.

So Alan, this post is for you. It was a real honour and a privilege being taught by you, and then latterly to know you as a friend. Go in peace wherever you are!