Harry Young (1901-1996): Жизнь и труд (Life and Labour #3)

‘Having finally acquired formal academic status I offered to lecture voluntarily at the Working Mens College, Camden Town, London, on the History of the Russian Revolution and the Working Class Movement in Great Britain, going back to where I trained as a teacher thirty years before. Perhaps I can now give back a little of what so many great Teachers have given me.’

The last instalment of my Life and Labour posts explores the second great professional love of Harry Young, teaching. By pure chance, he stumbled across ‘an ex-girlfriend’ in 1946 who suggested he should apply to the ‘Ministry of Education [who] were inviting applications from ex-service personnel […] for training for teaching within the state system.’ Although he initially harboured reservations over whether his political allegiances would exclude him from consideration, he eventually applied, and was accepted.

He was informed after his interview that the Ministry had ‘decided to take [him] on although [he was] ten years over the age limit.’ He must have done something right! In discussing his motivations, he admits that ‘the lure of science and knowledge proved inescapable’ and thus he ‘accepted the appointment and was immediately asked to take a pre-college service (class) at a miserable pittance, in a West London School.’

His teacher training, at the London Working Men’s College began in 1948 and his excitement at entering education is plain to read. He writes that ‘Little did I even guess the colossal task I was essaying – nor did I care. Not merely was I going to master all aspects from scratch, having no formal training in Science, but Science itself was in a terrific state of ferment.’ The atom had been split, ‘Crick had found the double helix – the D.N.A., while in Chemistry Bio-Technology was revolutionising convention.’ In 1954, Harry moved from junior school teaching to ‘take charge of Science at the Hugh Myddleton School, Finsbury, London.

It was Harry’s teaching which finally removed him from inner London, and ‘with the arrival of Christmas 1956 [he] finally shook the dust of London from my feet.’ He proclaims, with tangible excitement, ‘I duly packed the family belongings, […] and then deposited my wife, son Tom and baby daughter Clare at a house in South Oxney, Watford.’ Harry finally settled down, and although he moved between schools more than once, he had, at last found a place of his own to settle down.

Hugh Myddleton School’, Finsbury

But……this is Harry Young we are talking about. Surely you didn’t think normality would endure?!

After he had supposedly ‘retired from teaching’, and his children had lives and homes of their own, he was ‘evicted’ from his house in Watford by his wife, and moved into a friend’s house, back in South London. Curiously, Harry doesn’t mention why he was ‘evicted’ which, and forgive my snap judgement, I might suggest was down some kind of misadventure on his part, although without confirmation, that is only speculation. However, Harry was back in London.

It came a rather a shock to the system when he tried to reapply his previous local knowledge and return to driving a taxi. He confesses that ‘not merely was my knowledge of London hopelessly out of date and inadequate, […] but even my sense of distance and the old skills, by which I could turn a cab on a sixpence were no longer evident.’ His persistence actually ‘culminated in a quite serious crash during a torrential downpour in North London.’

Following this, Harry turned his back on driving and returned to teaching, eventually earning his B.A. Degree in History from York University. Upon achieving this his son, Tom, said to him ‘”Well, dad, […] that’s another of your ambitions realised”‘ To which Harry comments in his memoir ‘Not quite, I took the Fourth Year Advanced Honours Degree with a Research Dissertation on the History of the British Communist Movement.’

Harry Young, the street urchin with no future, travelled the world, met some of the most important political figures in the twentieth century, almost destroyed an oak table with a steak pie, drive ambulances through the Blitz, and then taught science and history on-and-off for thirty years. I mentioned in my Purpose and Audience post that his memoir reads more like an adventure comic, but I may have to rethink that. I’m not sure anyone could make this life up!

Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858

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