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Fred Jarvis has had a long and distinguished career in campaigning for education, culminating in being the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers from 1975 to 1989. He had for fifteen years been a member of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress and was President of the TUC in 1987. This book is his autobiography.
His interest in left-wing politics had begun while he was still a grammar school boy in Wallasey. He left school at 16 because his parents could not afford to have him stay on into the sixth form. After he left school he joined a group called the Progressive Youth Movement, and soon edited their magazine. He sent copies of the paper to the editor of the Times Educational Supplement who as a result got him to write for this major paper while he was in the Army. He also wrote regular Forces Diary for the Wallasey News, and the extracts he prints are the best written parts of this book - not only in point of style and colour (which I found rather lacking in the rest of the book), but also because his reflections on what he saw in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany were remarkably mature and progressive for a lad of twenty.
After demobilization he attended a non-degree course in Social Science at Liverpool University, and there he founded a student Labour Society. The existing Student Labour Federation was too communist-dominated for him, and Jarvis was always a staunch opponent of communism. Within weeks this took him to become a delegate at the National Union of Students. He then took a degree course at Oxford. At the National Union of Students he ended up as President in 1952. His work at the NUS was noticed by the National Union of Teachers, who initially put him in charge of its publicity and PR Department, and, as we know, he ended up being the Union's General Secretary.
The main body of the book is about his work, his many initiatives and achievements at the NUT. That is a workmanlike and factually impressive account, but it lacks the colour of his war-time writings. He mentions innumerable people with whom he worked, but doesn't bring out the personality of any of them - the descriptions of the many persons he admired are limited to using single adjectives like "great". There is a good deal of detail in this section, which is, understandably, all meat and drink to him, but possibly not to all his readers.
Jarvis clearly got to where he did through ability, hard work, drive, knowing what he wanted to achieve in the context of widening access to education and improving conditions for teachers and students, through making the right contacts many of whom became friends for life. (He has a great capacity for friendship.) So I think that, despite the suggestion in the title, his rise has not really been a matter of luck.
During Jarvis' time as General Secretary and in that of his successor Doug McAvoy (1989 to 2004), the NUT was in generally moderate left wing hands, and, though Jarvis presided over the longest teachers' rolling strike in 1985/6, for the most part the NUT's achievements were the result not of militancy but of persuasive campaigning. But since then because the "hard left" and the "ultra-left" have hugely increased their influence on the Executive. Jarvis writes that they are unrepresentative of the membership as a whole, and have got there largely because of the low turn-out at elections, often because of the ignorance of many teachers of what the real agenda of these candidates is, though undoubtedly also because Michael Gove is the most divisive and aggressive Education Secretary teachers have ever had to deal with. The last chapter is a blistering attack on Gove, the worst and most doctrinaire, blinkered, dictatorial and damaging education secretary in his life-time, and Jarvis quotes chapter and verse in support of this contention.
Jarvis has a great hinterland, and the last section of the book - in which his style livens up again - is mainly about his hobbies. There is jazz and classical music, and there are plenty of anecdotes of famous people he has met. There is a chapter about photography: Jarvis is a fine and enthusiastic photographer, constantly carries a camera, has been able to capture many political events and has staged ten exhibitions of his pictures which range from flowers to foreign places to famous and not so famous people to family and friends to football and to many other (non-alliterative) subjects and occasions.
Another chapter is about West Ham United Football Club of which Jarvis is an ardent fan: he was born in West Ham; his father had been a life-long supporter and took Fred to matches when he was still a kid. And he is keen on horse racing and enjoys betting on them.
He has a holiday home in a Provençal village, where he can live in a world and a manner very different from his life in England, and about which there is a delightful chapter, in which he particularly brings out the tremendous community sprit of the village.
It was his wife Anne's love of France which caused them to buy this holiday home. Sadly she died in 2007, and one of the last chapters is a tribute to her. They had met when they were both on the Oxford committee of the NUS and married in 1954. After their children were born, they moved to Barnet in Hertfordshire, Anne became a teacher in near-by Finchley, was also an education activist and was for eight years chair of the Education Committee of Barnet Council. She was to the left of him and was nicknamed "Fred's Red". She, like him, has led life to the full.