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Goodbye Dick Skellington

Updated Tuesday 30th September 2014

We say goodbye and thank you to the man behind Society Matters with a personal obituary from his colleague, and friend. 

Dick Skellington Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license

Dick Skellington, the creator and long-time editor of Society Matters, has died at the age of 66. Readers of this esteemed former newspaper, and now online blog, may wish to know a little more about this remarkable man.

Dick was born in Nottingham, along with his twin sister Ann. Contemporaries recall his early passion for football. According to one, he played in hob-nailed boots with steel toe-caps, which had the effect of discouraging opponents from tackling him. He was also a fine cross-country runner. He studied at the former Enfield Polytechnic, and got a First in Sociology, before going on to Bangor. There was a brief stab at school-teaching in Wales, where his good nature made him easy prey for a class of scheming teenagers. By this time Dick was also developing his lifelong love for theatre, but turned down a place at RADA to become a journalist. He first came to fame in Bedford, exposing systematic racism in the allocation of public housing to the large immigrant communities, and writing a book about it.

Some of Dick’s exploits have passed into legend, for example when  he set off with his friend Graham Pilkington to cycle to Australia. Dick got through Afghanistan, after some adventures, but was finally flown home from Turkey with dysentery. I think Graham made it to Australia, where he became a professor.

In 1976, just a few years after The Open University opened its doors (or sent out its first student mailings) Dick joined the Faculty of Social Sciences, and worked there for the next 36 years. He had a number of roles, including Research Assistant and Project Officer. He made contributions to a huge number of courses, none more so than the ground breaking Race, Education and Society, chaired by Ali Rattansi and Maud Blair. His book Race in Britain Today, published by Sage Books in 1996, sold extremely well for an academic text, as did the collection of readings on Racism and Anti-Racism (Sage 1992), which Dick co-edited. 

Along with John Hunt, a brilliant cartographer and desktop publishing whizz, Dick took over the worthy but dull Social Sciences Faculty newsletter, and transformed it with his journalistic skills into an interesting and extremely readable small newspaper. Dick's politics were always on the left, and he persuaded distinguished radical journalists like John Pilger and Robert Fisk to write pieces for him without fees. Dick nominated Fisk for an honorary degree, and composed and read the citation.

Dick had a genius for getting short entertaining pieces from academics and others he met, and could turn his own hand to writing on almost any subject. He was curious about everything. He was extremely well-read, extremely well-informed about politics in particular, and interested in popular as well as high culture. Society Matters was distributed in thousands up and down the country, and made Social Sciences look so interesting that large numbers of potential students joined the Faculty, and stayed there. When the paper was threatened by one of the Faculty's periodic rounds of cuts, Dick negotiated its transfer to the Platform website, and then its recent auspicious move to OpenLearn. Along the way he collected and inspired the dedicated team of illustrators and cartoonists, notably Kate Pain and Gary Edwards, who made its presentation so vivid and distinctive.

Can there ever have been a a greater citizen of the OU community than Dick Skellington? He started the OU football club, and for the next 35 years he played, managed and coached the side to a string of successes in the Milton Keynes football league. (They played in normal football boots). "Dick was not exactly Lionel Messi," a team- mate remarked, "but with a good bounce and a following wind he could unleash a cannonball shot from great range!" Dick also co-founded the Open University Dramatic Society, and it quickly became an important part of the new city’s Arts scene. Dick acted in innumerable productions, and directed with distinction – Hedda Gabler, The Importance of Being Ernest, Richard the Third, and an unforgettable Elephant Man.

For over 20 years Dick also wrote a column for the OU's internal newspaper, under the non-de-plume Tufty Stackpole. This was named after his cat Tufty, a giant  (23lbs) ginger tom. The column was a kind of surreal half-imagined autobiography, with tongue-in-cheek lampooning of OU management follies. It was greatly enjoyed  by a succession of vice-chancellors, who clearly accepted Dick as a kind of licensed house jester. In due course, Dick’s cumulative contribution was recognised by a rare form of promotion, based in part on the range of his services to the OU community. In short, Dick was one of The Open University's great characters.

In civvy street Dick was just as active, refereeing local football games, umpiring cricket matches, acting and directing in wider MK drama circles, and being elected and re-elected as a councillor in Stony Stratford. Dick's love of cats continued. One day, he saved two kittens from being drowned in a sack: he took them home and called them Dandy and Beano.

In retirement, Dick kept most of this going. He accepted a contract to keep editing Society Matters, which got better and better. He made more trips than ever to Alghero in Sardinia, his favourite place on earth. I don’t think he was ever happier than when pottering along its sea walls with his camera, then coming back and showing the pictures to his beloved partner Linda, over a glass of red wine. Dick also began to write - and publish - more poetry, and in the last year was being mentored in a group lead by Carol-Ann Duffy, the poet laureate.

Dick died on the night of September 18th.  In Scotland, the votes in the Referendum, in which Dick was keenly interested, were being counted. On the following day Dick had an appointment in London with Penguin Books to discuss the inclusion of some of his poems in their prestigious annual anthology.

This loveable man made friends in all the many circles he inhabited, drawing people to him by his gentleness, his wit, and his way of encouraging them to give of their best. Despite his wonderful array of talents, his own ego never got in the way. He was an absolutely unique human being, and he is utterly irreplaceable. It was wonderful to have known him, to have worked with him, and to have been counted among his pals.

Wouldn't you love to read 600 words from him, wherever he is now?

 

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