I got up this morning and trudged to work through the drizzle and barely noticed the sirens and police tape sealing off the ring road outside my office, and the Tweets from locals trying to find alternative routes round the blockage. I was tired, it was dark and my head was full of footnotes. We don't notice these things any more, do we? Not in any direct way. Sirens and accidents have become the wallpaper of urban life. Someone's always being hit or committing a crime or having a heart attack. You can't live in a mass society and feel deeply every time you hear a siren. We cope by alienating ourselves from the stranger in the back of the ambulance or the hearse. The closed-off street becomes a nuisance, an impediment or – for some – a second-order echo of low-rent TV dramas and documentaries.
Until it's someone you know. First the reports referred to a death in the crash, and I felt momentarily sad before returning to my notes (sorry for the 'I', but thinking about someone else's death is always refracted through the consciousness of one's own mortality). Later on, the university confirmed that the victim was one of our own beloved colleagues, Nick Musgrove. So I'd like to turn from the general to the particular, because Nick, though I didn't know him very well, was a very particular kind of guy.
Nick pretty much embodied the spirit of this university. He was a scrap man for years before he bullied his way on to an Access course at an FE college without having anything near the right qualifications – and he passed with Distinctions in almost everything, leaving everybody else behind. Then he came to us and took first a BSc before working here as a specialist in adaptive technologies for students with disabilities.
One of the great things about this institution is that it's open (despite government) for those who've missed, struggled with or been excluded from other educational opportunities. Nick benefited from our refusal to let people slip through the cracks, and he applied that to his job. Utterly devoted to the students he looked after, he would fight for their right to equal educational opportunities – but he expected them to grasp their chances in the same way he had. But what the students never saw of Nick was the ferocity with which he pursued their rights against anyone he saw as impediments to their progress. He was (as all good union members should be) remorseless when it came to holding management's feet to the fire. He had the confidence of a man who'd had a hard-won life outside the rarefied atmosphere of a university and must have been the terror of management from the associate dean who described him as 'calling a spade a fucking shovel' to the Vice-Chancellor who knew Nick well despite being a relative newcomer. He was that kind of guy: he stamped his personality on his surroundings and colleagues and you were always grateful he was on your side rather than coming for you.
This university – and most universities – is defined by its ability to find room for the quirky, the awkward and those for whom the ruthless corporate world has no use. Nick was one of them: principled, cussed and hugely intelligent, and a huge asset to students and colleagues alike. But he wasn't just a toiler: his sense of public duty was apparent in the research which led to his PhD. His passions were conservation and bird-watching and ringing: one of the swifts he ringed was recently discovered to have flown to Africa and back 21 times over the past couple of decades. His PhD on uplands management may have been severely delayed when the Long Mynd was closed during the Foot and Mouth epidemic, but it made a serious – and often very plain-spoken – contribution to National Trust policy. I certainly see an emotional and intellectual analogy between the terrain of the Long Mynd and his working life, and between the swifts and the students he shepherded through their time here with such infinite care.
I've just come back from a short gathering of colleagues to mark Nick's death. The strength of his personality came through so powerfully in colleagues' accounts of their interactions with him. There were tears, certainly, but also long, loud laughs despite his death being only a few hours ago. Is there a general lesson in Nick's life and death? I suppose there are several. That death is arbitrary and unpredictable. That immortality is achieved through the effect you have on others. For me, it came when I sat in the canteen afterwards looking out on the scene of his accident. The tape is gone, the traffic is flowing and nobody would know that 6 hours ago a vibrant, charismatic man breathed his last. But as an ambulance hurried through the lights, I thought to myself that on board was somebody else's Nick. Not a stranger from whom I was emotionally insulated but a weird, quirky, loved individual. No doubt this feeling will fade again under the relentless 'next-ness' of quotidian existence, but for now, the fragility, the temporariness and thus the value of life is brought to the forefront of my thoughts.
Nick Musgrove, ladies and gentlemen. A man who did nothing but good.
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