Michael Barratt Brown was the first Principal of Northern College, a residential college for adults which opened in September 1978. I was lucky enough to take one of the first jobs at the College, and taught there from 1978 to 1985. Working with Michael was a baptism of fire for a young and inexperienced lecturer, particularly as he had no patience with the belief that you could learn anything about teaching from books or training courses.
I already knew of Michael before joining the College. His political work in the peace movement and in the campaign for industrial democracy were well known; he often co-authored with Ken Coates, another adult educator who like Michael had left the Communist Party in 1956, and who became quite a high profile figure in the Labour Left. I had also met Michael, through my Warwick mentor Royden Harrison, the historian and an old friend and political comrade of Michael’s (Royden also wrote a reference that was, I suspect, instrumental in getting me the job).
Michael was an inspirational figure who was capable of haranguing the College staff – and students – when things didn’t go entirely to his liking. My first experience of Michael in rant mode was when the Deputy Principal, in Michael’s absence, declared the College closed during a snowy cold snap; Michael was furious, spluttering that if he could get in to the College then there was no reason to close it down. He then went out skiing.
To be honest, his harangues tended to cause more amusement than anxiety. Yet, as you might expect of someone with his wartime experiences, there was real toughness in the man – and indeed there had to be. For the first few years of its life, the College battled to survive. The Sheffield Conservative Party was particularly virulent in its attacks, both through its one local MP Irvine Patnick, a nasty piece of work who fed misinformation to the media in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster), and through the local Chamber of Commerce. And all this during the Thatcher years.
Michael was robust in his defence of the College, and disarmingly charming with its critics. He was also capable of puncturing others’ self-importance, usually employing his sly sense of humour. I remember him one chairing a disciplinary hearing involving two students, both activists in the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had been involved in a fight. It was a tense and difficult occasion, with claim and counter-claim over the origins of the dispute, which Michael defused by asking “And what exactly is a pillock?” To this day I’m uncertain whether he genuinely didn’t known what the word meant, but it brought us all back to our senses.
He worked hard and expected others to do the same. He was an enormously productive writer while contributing a full teaching load and doing all the networking and admin that came with the job. He also drank hard: the College then expected all its teaching staff to serve as residential tutors once a week, and occasionally I’d find him in his study at night, polishing off a bottle of red wine while writing an article or a pamphlet.
He was capable of enormous generosity, supporting students in terrible hardship with ‘loans’ (rarely repaid) from his own pocket. As some students never tired of pointing out, he could well afford to be generous, though much of his wealth came from canny investments. I did once ask him about the ethics of a Quaker Marxist gambling on the stock market; his response, with a grin, was “Why be an economist if you don’t use it?”
In many ways Michael became an adult educator almost by accident – or at most through planned happenstance – as I did. His formal education had been richly supplemented by a lifetime of political activity, but he had taught for the WEA before joining the Extra-Mural Department at Sheffield University, where he was drawn into teaching on the miners’ day release programme. He thought that adult educators were made through experience; when I asked about financial support to undertake an OU course called Education for Adults, he snapped at me: “Why on earth would anyone want to study adult education?” I paid for the course myself (and thoroughly enjoyed it).
Robin Murray has written a beautifully worded obituary of Michael for the Guardian. And there is plenty more detail in Michael’s autobiography for anyone who is interested in his remarkably varied and influential life. There is much more to be said, and critiqued, about his life and work, and what it tells us about the turbulent trajectory of British adult education. But now is a time for mourning and celebrating, and sharing personal memories of someone who contributed so much to the lives of those around him.