Remembering Mr Granath — the last History Boy?

On the death of one of the great history teachers, in a time of plague

There was something about Mr Granath that created the impression of permanence. It’s a trick that all great people manage, because, in spite of physical frailties, they have created something bigger than their bodies. Like thousands at Easter 2020, Andrew’s body died from Covid 19.

His name did not.

In the days after his death, I turned it over. Granath. Granath. Like some elvish currency, a rare rock, formed under colossal pressure in the deep. It is a satisfying name to say — always a good thing for a teacher — and to syllabify.

As with all stalwart teachers — he taught history and politics in London for 40 years — the syllables of his name have rung through classrooms, corridors and homes to an accumulation something like fame. For most, this recognition is distributed such that it never fully accretes, as each year group shears off into the adult world and forgetfulness.

But with Andrew, it was — it is — slightly different.

Turning away from my family on Easter Saturday, I type “granath” and “mastermind” into google, hoping that video is still there.

It is. Shaky footage of a living room, some voices, standing round a television screen, now in focus. It shows a famous black chair. The voice of John Humphrys: “Andrew Granath, your specialist subject is the life and career of William Gladstone, and your time starts… now.”

And suddenly there he is again. That implacable face. Large. Pale. Expressionless. Even under the white-heat of quiz show duress. And then that wonderful voice. Bassy. Exact. Dry as stone.

As Granath reels off answer after answer, the young voices in the living room get louder — it’s his A-level students, recording their favourite teacher in his moment of triumph.

“GRANAAAATH!”

“YESSS! HE’S F*****G SMASHING IT”

“GRAN-ATH!”

It looks like he might manage the whole thing without a single pass. But suddenly he falters on the final question. A tense moment. Granath, a life-long boxing fanatic, looks troubled, rocked after dominating a round.

The living room holds its breath, uncomprehending. There is nothing Granath doesn’t know about Gladstone…

Then it comes, thumping back off the ropes. “The State and Church and Its Relations”. He beats the bell, his score pings higher and the living room is in raptures.

“GRAN-ATH! GRAN-ATH!”

***

Andrew Granath was not formed in middle Earth — he was formed in Dagenham. He attended a secondary modern, Nicholas County Secondary School in Basildon and, lacking the opportunity of a sixth-form, was destined for a career at the Ford manufacturing plant. But policy reform turned Nicholas School into a comprehensive and young Andrew was offered A-levels, a piece of luck he would repay. He excelled, went to university and spent his life inspiring thousands to do the same.

We would meet as Heads of Department — History and English — at The Latymer School, the state grammar in north London and left in the same year, 2016, when a lot of things seemed to be ending and beginning. He was in his 60s taking his first step towards retirement; I, in my thirties, considering a break from the classroom.

For all his popularity with the students, it was striking to see the extent of his influence in social media tributes this year. Pupils, colleagues, parents, people he’d never met, ex-pupil writers (including I think Ash Sarkar, Richard Godwin, Basia Cummings, Aditya Chakrabortty, Tom Lamont and perhaps more). And an entire twitter account of his aphorisms, from which a favourite Granath line: ‘Mo, I researched that chap you told me about — Kendrick Lamar. I listened to his song B**** Don’t Kill My Vibe. It ruined my weekend.’

But to consider only what is recorded is a superficial way to think about the impact of a great teacher. Of the assemblies he was famous for, one stands out. In 2014, for his Great War centenary address to the school, Mr Granath had found the programme for Latymer’s Sports Day on July 11th 1914, one hundred years earlier.

Carefully, he read out the bowling figures from the cricket match, giving each player his name.

Then Heat 1 of the 100 yards:

“W. Elms, A. Chittenden, R. Hobbs, V Sharpen, E. Lurton, F. Wood, V. Grimshaw and V. Rogers…

Of the eight boys running in that heat, five would be dead in four years”.

Pausing, he measured the stillness in a packed great hall.

Then, quoting wartime headmaster Richard Ashworth: “When I look back on the years when the sun shone so brightly…I would never have thought that the burden of our sorrows would weigh so heavily upon us”.

Finally, Mr Granath spoke in his own words: “No matter how peaceful our own time might feel, we can never take security for granted. We never know when or where some terrible movement of history might strike.”

Yes indeed.

He would have been appalled at any implied comparison with Covid, our current movement of history and his own death — he had a history teacher’s eye for cant — but he wasn’t old either. He wrote to me in 2016: “As I was waking up this morning, I heard on the 7 o’clock news on Radio 4 that the Brixton boy David Bowie had died at the age of 69 which in this day and age is nothing”. Andrew Granath was 68.

By then we had become staff room friends, encouraged by his eccentric and hilarious emails.

On his Ebay habit: “For reasons that I cannot explain I found myself bidding this week on Ebay for a 12 mpg Jaguar XJ12. I think I was bored. I have just been outbid but there are 2 days to go. Be still my offending hand”. (When I replied that even if I could afford it, my wife would not permit car-buying on auction sites, his reply was simple. “Assert yourself Patrick.”)

On the poet Les Murray: “Only in Australia could a nation’s greatest poet be called Les”.

On English Catholicism and class: “Charles Moore converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week”.

On receipt of yet another all-school email: “I would like to use the words of that difficult Cambridge man, Oliver Cromwell; ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken’. I am afraid that school leaders are what the Germans used to describe rather ominously as ein Volk ohne Kultur.”

By that final year at Latymer, he appeared tired, crouching grimly at his computer screen (or during lunch, at a pot noodle). Life seemed to weigh heavily on him. Equally, he might have been pacing himself — his passion for teaching was quite undiminished, not to mention for countless other obsessions: completionist knowledge of politics and history; boxing; half a dozen other sports, especially cricket; motor engines, Velasquez, the fin de siecle horror writer Arthur Machen and most of English literature.

As with many historians, he thought very carefully about place — particularly his home borough, about which he wrote a fascinating monograph (available from Mr Bezos for £500). Like Iain Sinclair, whom Andrew followed, or Peter Ackroyd, he grasped London’s psychogeography, by the way he lived in, used and influenced the city, but also through its tree-ring layers of history. He was always out — at fringe theatre (“See things live, Patrick. Avoid the dreadful television.”) — or the pub quiz in Stoke Newington, or riding a 25 year old Triumph Thunderbird.

Of course, all this restive enthusiasm was part of his greatness. Simply knowing and caring about such a wide array of things can make some people seem super-sensitive to the direction of events — I half-remember he had a 2016 accumulator on Brexit, Trump and some outlandish football outcome* that wasn’t, sadly, Leicester City winning the league. He was human after all.

*EDIT: A reader writes in — it was Spurs winning the league. To dare is to do, I suppose.

Nevertheless, to his pupils, one unintended forecast must have seemed especially unworldly. On September 11 2001, he finished an A-level politics lesson with an offhand prediction that unless a plane crashed into Buckingham Palace, Tony Blair’s speech to the TUC would be that night’s headline story. Ten minutes later the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Even adults who should know better would turn to him for prognostication. On the morning of June 24th 2016, I remember entering the staff room in a state of shock. Andrew was in early, utterly unperturbed. “Are we going to be ok dyou think?” I asked feebly. “Yes,” he said, after a pause. And a barely perceptible glance of disapproval that made me feel like a year 7 who’d asked to go to the toilet.

A few weeks later, in his leaving speech to the Latymer staff room after 28 years, he said of himself and the school, that he was “a mollusc who had found his shell”. Of his aversion to modern performance management processes, “not borne of incompetence, but an unwillingness to be competent. Very different”. And, gloriously, recalling the occasion of his first interview to teach in north London, the moment he realised that instead of handing in documents confirming his identity, he had given the school an envelope of souvenirs from a recent holiday to a certain beach in Greece.

Wrapping up the day, the headmaster had said that, on the whole, when invited to interview, better not to announce yourself to a potential employer by giving the secretary a photograph of yourself naked. It says something about his teaching (or the 1970s) that he still got the job.

***

If in a hundred years’ time, there is an equivalent school assembly, our descendants will be lucky to have a historian with the heart and tenacity to find the human stories behind the horrifying statistics of 2020.

I won’t go as far as saying that the only historian who could find and do justice to this story was Mr Granath. He was far too modest and suspicious of sentiment to allow that. After all, he trained thousands of young historians to be just as meticulous and sensitive as him, so we should have faith in the power of his teaching, and its exigencies.

When the earth is at its most layered and unforgiving, you must dig well to find its most precious elements. On the morning of January 1st 2050, some of those former pupils will gather where Mr Granath played cricket for the staff against the school, on the oak-lined playing fields of Latymer. There, they will dig up Mr Granath’s time capsule — his typically ingenious parting gift — and they will be full of memories about how great he was, how much he changed their lives and how much they loved him.

If any of his pupils are reading this, please make a note of the date. I am sure he would want you to be there. Pass it on girls, pass it on boys. Historians of the future. Mr Granath has a lesson for you yet. Hidden deep. But it’ll be worth it.

Writing and teaching. Tweets at @i_padawan