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!

28 responses to “An honour and a privilege

  1. Biology was my favorite subject in secondary school, much because our female teacher was a fantastic teacher, the only one in my school as far as I could see. Sorry for your teacher, but great that he made you tick. And I love mushroom, but needs more time out in the dark woods.

    • Hello Bente, time spent in the woods looking for mushrooms is time well spent. One of these days I plan to do a mushrooming course to learn to discern the edible ones, then I’ll be able to eat them as well as photograph them 🙂

      My teacher was one of those amazing people who was blessed with a combination of enthusiasm, knowledge and the ability to bring the best out of his pupils. A rare combination of gifts which it seems was shared with your biology teacher.

  2. Reading this post reminds me of my biology class. We were supposed to select a theme for a thesis at the beginning of the class and hand it in by the end of the class year. It was supposed to be 500 words long. I chose the evolution of man. Neadless to say, you can’t do a thesis on the evolution of man in 500 words in one school year adequately. I went to him in the last few weeks in tears, and told him it was impossible…what should I do? He asked me to pick another subject and do that one… and during my research on the evolution of man I discovered the evolution of the camel… which species started in NY State and today this country is the only country with no native species of camels. I didn’t have time to write 500 words, but I drew all the stages of evolution and handed in the drawings with about 100 words. I got a 99+… he told me he never hands out 100’s. 🙂

    • Hello Snowbird, I respect your ambition in trying to summarise human evolution in 500 words 😉 But like me, a clear head and a clear steer was all you needed and your teacher provided that. These people are worth their weight in gold!

  3. Dear Finn, I actually read this post while I was on holiday and it had stayed in my mind each time I thought of you. Thank you for this soul-stirring post. I do believe the world is sustained by precisely such good folks who truly live out the ideals of meaningful kindness and genuine care and concern for others. How very fortunate that you met someone like him. It would have been a great pleasure to get to know someone like Alan too. Sharon

    • Hello Sharon, you’re absolutely right on both counts – it is good people like Alan who sustain the world and I was very lucky indeed that our paths crossed when they did.

  4. We all need direction at pivotal stages in our lives and he clearly kept you from derailing. There needs to be more respect in this world and I certainly respect your posts, they seem to getting better over time. I hope I can provide you with more blog posts, however currently I have many irons in the fire.

    Do keep the posts coming.



    • Hello Tony, that’s jolly nice of you to say so – I’m on the case though – I’ve got more photographs than I know what to do with just now.

      Posts from the Timeline have been conspicuous by their absence, so I’m looking forward to reading about your irons.

  5. A truly lovely post, Finn. Your esteem for your teacher shines through, and I daresay he must have been proud of you. As I read you, I was reminded of Roger Deakin who, in one of his books, (Waterlog, I think), pays moving tribute to his natural history teacher in terms quite similar to yours.

  6. You are very fortunate to have had such an inspiring influence. I wish mine had appeared much earlier in my photographic career. But it’s never too late.

  7. A moving tribute Finn, and I’m sure he was very proud to have played a part in directing you towards attaining your achievements.

    • Hello Theresa, I hope so. I’m really disappointed he didn’t ge to see the paper I mentioned as it’s going into ‘Nature’, which is the crowning achievement of any scientists publication record. It had been accepted by them and the final draft submitted just a few days after he died. Unlucky timing!

  8. A very touching memorial for someone who seems so special…. My condolences….

  9. Very nice tribute, Finn…well done.

  10. So sorry Alan died before you got a chance to get together, we are forever grateful you crossed his path. I remember the day you came home and said you were going to study Biochemistry. From the age of about 10 you were going to be a pilot!

  11. Lovely post – we are lucky if we encounter teachers like that. If only our education system would nurture teachers, instead of grinding them down – a few more might blossom.
    Good to see the birch bracket fungus – I think I may have seen one of those and was wondering what it was!

  12. What a wonderful experience, to have a teacher like Alan. Sometimes all we need is that encouraging voice, someone who believes in us and motivates us to do something. These helpful souls can make the difference between us failing to achieve, and exceeding our expectations. It sounds to me as if he chose the right profession, and it must have been great to meet him later in life and show him how his encouragement had helped you. That must be one of the most satisfying things about being a teacher, seeing pupils you’ve coached go on to become successful. This is a lovely post Finn, a fond remembrance with some smashing fungi photos. I’m looking forward to seeing your project!

    • Hello Lorna, I just found your comment quarantined in the Spam folder in amongst all those offering me ‘chemical enhancements’! can’t imagine why WP placed it there.

      He was a totally sound man, an inspirational teacher and it was great to see him again, especially somewhere as congenial as the Folk Festival. Thankyou for your appreciativre comment and I’m glad you like the fungi. I’ll try and scan the project in the near future and post it here.

  13. A teacher like that never really dies, does he.

  14. This really touched me – beautiful post for Alan.

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