The week before last I attended a memorial celebration for Peter Preston, who died on 18 October 2011 after a brave battle with cancer. I mostly knew Peter from connections with the William Morris Society, where he was Chair and Vice-Chair, and he was a convivial, jovial, kind-hearted and fun-loving man. Attending the very-well-attended memorial gathering for him, at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, Nottingham, gave everyone present the chance to find out about his many enthusiasms and commitments. As well as being a long-standing supporter of Morris he was also highly knowledgeable about D. H. Lawrence, and he became Director of the D. H. Lawrence Research Centre.
What I was most struck by during the afternoon was two things. First, Peter was a voracious reader. He simply loved books, and particularly the Victorians. Poems by Thomas Hardy and Christina Rossetti were read, as well as extracts from Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Morris’s A Dream of John Ball. I’ve never attended a service of remembrance before where literary texts had been chosen with such care and read to such effect. Second, Peter’s love of books was also related to the other defining aspect of his career — his many years as an adult educator in differing contexts. He started out as a WEA Tutor Organiser for Berks, Bucks & Oxford, and then became Warden of Lincoln Adult Education Centre. Moving to Nottingham he became S/L in Literature in the University of Nottingham’s Adult/Continuing Education Department, and in due course would end up as Head of School/Director of Continuing Education. Peter’s commitment to educating adults shone through the various accounts given of him, and I found myself reflecting that he represented an era and a kind of Lecturer/teacher who increasingly no longer exists, as many universities (including both Nottingham and Birmingham as two where I have studied) have shut down the thriving continuing education programmes they once ran.
Maybe these Continuing Education departments/programmes didn’t make enough money — after all, there are outlay costs of staffing, admin and rooming involved to host such a programme. But I also rather suspect that their decline mirrored an era in which the pursuit of Research ratings became the most important goal for many an institution. If that’s the over-riding priority, a commitment to programmes that offer a quality educational experience for the general public will not be high at all.
The Worker’s Educational Association still exists, of course, as does the Working Men’s College founded by F. D. Maurice in 1854, and I hope they continue to thrive. Peter’s commitment to adult education and lifelong learning, both outside and within the university system, was clearly an inspiration to many, and that was reflected in the number of former students who attended his memorial celebration. He will be much missed.