Jan 30 2011
An Earthquake and Fred Singleton, an inspirational educator
Last night at 18.41, I experienced my first earthquake. It was measured 4.8 on the Richter scale and shook my building considerably more than the trams which rattle past outside. My first reaction was that this must have been an earthquake,very frightening.
I had just come back from the planetarium where I’d seen a show on the wonders of our universe and was reminded of how tiny and fragile our planet is and the need to look after it well. There was little significant damage in this earthquake, the biggest in Hungary for 26 years, but there have been other earthquakes in this part of the world over the last 50 years which have caused serious loss of life and damage, in Skopje in 1963, Montenegro in 1979 and in Bucharest in 1977.
The Skopje earthquake in Macedonia
At the end of October this year I attended the Macedonian teachers’ conference (ELTAM) and the first thing in the programme was a reference to the July 26 1963 earthquake in which over 1,000 people were killed, 80% of the city was destroyed and more than 200,000 people were left homeless. The railway station clock has been left there
showing the exact time of the earthquake, 5.17.
One inspirational teacher
In our lives we come into contact with many teachers, some inspirational, some less but one person who had a huge impact on my life was Fred Singleton, the head of the Yugoslav Studies department at Bradford University. Part of my Eastern European Studies degree involved a strand on Yugoslav studies and we ended up studying in Belgrade in 1979 and in that same year I travelled with Fred to Dubrovnik where he was giving a paper at a conference. One thing I’ll always remember about Fred is him telling me how he and a group of students from Bradford helped out after the earthquake in Skopje.
Fred Singleton, an inspirational teacher
Fred died in January 1988 and I attended his funeral in Ilkley, Yorkshire, travelling up from Brighton where I was working in a language school at the time. He was a Yorkshireman but also a real citizen of the world. He served in the Royal Navy on the minesweeper HMS “Aurora” in the Mediterranean and it was then that he made his first contact with Yugoslavia and its peoples and a relationship was born that would soon become an important part of his life, both personal and professional.
After the war, he joined an international student brigade determined to make his own contribution in rebuilding war-devastated Yugoslavia which meant more to Fred than just taking part in the construction of the main road between Belgrade and Zagreb. It meant paving a road towards a future that would engage a good part of his interest and equip him with knowledge of the country and its peoples that would end up with him writing many books and articles about Yugoslavia.
Fred studied geography and history at Leeds University, gained his BA and MA there as well as his teaching qualifications and in 1963 became a lecturer in geography at Bradford University and became chair of Yugoslav Studies in 1977, the year I started at the university on my Eastern European Studies course.
Shortly before his death he was still attending conferences throughout Europe, although he had officially retired. His last one was in Kragujevac. He was also a keen supporter of the Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik, the place he was bound for when we visited Dubrovnik together in 1979. As Vice-President of the British Yugoslav Society, Fred worked untiringly for the development of better relations and understanding between East and West, and more broadly, for world peace.
He was a Socialist, an active member of the Labour Party and stood for the European Parliament for North Yorkshire in 1979, the first direct elections to the European parliament. I canvassed for him in his campaign. His was particulary motivated by the fight against racism and the promotion of international peace.
He was keen to build bridges between countries and peoples and was instrumental in setting up the twinning of Skopje and Bradford. This was as a result of his organisation of student brigades from Bradford to help the earthquake-stricken Skopje-in 1963. That
friendship and cooperation, forged as a result of helping out after the earthquake, still live on today. In fact one of the students on that brigade inevitably fell in love with a Macedonian girl, Vaska, whose family I visited in the March of 1979 in Ohrid. I got a bus from Dubrovnik through the mountains of Montenegro and Kosovo to the beautiful lake Ohrid, especially to see them. Vaska became secretary of the Yugoslav Studies department in Bradford.
Academics with a real interest in people as well as their subjects
Fred also used to work for the Worker’s Educational Association and taught miners in Yorkshire. The WEA provides access to education and lifelong learning for adults from all backgrounds, and in particular those who have previously missed out on education. It was here that he met the great historian E.P. Thompson, whose most famous work was “The Making of the English Working Class”. I met Edward Thompson at rallies in the eighties for European Nuclear Disarmament and he too had been to Yugoslavia after World War 2 to help out on rebuilding one of the railways in Bosnia. Edward said about working on the railway in Yugoslavia that “it would not interest the great transatlantic academia, it is about building a railway with wooden wheelbarrows, which is not a proper academic subject but it is an activity where we carry out our obligations to our neighbours and society”.
I was reminded of all this last night while talking about the earthquake and how Fred Singleton had been a great inspiration for me while at university in not only teaching me about Yugoslavia but instilling in me a love of all the parts of ex-Yugoslavia and teaching me how to live. Many people went to Haiti last year after one of the most devastating earthquakes ever.
Many classrooms look like this now in Haiti and there is an enormous amount of work to do but I can’t help thinking that part of our role as educators is to instill in our students a responsibility to and solidarity with our fellow human beings. Has anybody else had a teacher who inspired them in the way that Fred inspired me?