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Robert Morrell OBE: Obituary Page

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Guardian Article published in 1999 on the occasion of Bob's retirement from being a primary school janitor for 38 years and his award of an OBE

Out of the Closet

1999

Bob Morrell looks every inch the school caretaker. He is dressed in a jumper and trousers the colour of dishwater; his trouser pockets look as if the lining eloped years ago. His white hair and fierce white eyebrows rage in the summer wind. Morrell meets me at Nottingham station and strides towards his house, giving me a wonderful guided tour of the city as he walks. He seems shy, and looks ahead all the time: this is where the collaborator of dynamite creator Alfred Nobel lived; this used to be the main road all the way through to London; this estate used to be back-to-back terraces; so much history lost. He lets out an unwitting yelp of regret.

The trouble with me, says Morrell, is I talk to much. Stop me when you're getting bored. We reach his house and he takes me into the lounge which is shrouded in dark. Everything seems to be brown - the chairs, tables, books, the sculptures from Egypt and India. Outside, dense foliage blocks the light. Morrell apologises and says that one of his first post-retirement tasks is to do some chopping in the garden.

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For 38 years, Bob Morrell has been the caretaker at Arkwright primary school. He celebrated his 65th birthday on Tuesday and retires today, which will allow him to pursue his other sideline even more vigorously. In his spare time, Morrell is an academic, though he says he doesn't like the word. He prefers "amateur scholar". As an amateur scholar, Morrell has had numerous articles published in magazines and academic journals, many of them about the 18th-century radical Thomas Paine. He currently edits the journal of the Thomas Paine Society.

Morrell says he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. Well, he does, but it says a lot about the way we stereotype people in this country: "Caretakers are not supposed to know words with more than three syllables are they?"

Actually, he says, there was some truth in that in the old days. "I don't want to make fun of people, but when I started, caretakers were not particularly intelligent. Nowadays, you find many people with degrees doing this job." He talks about the teachers who cannot get jobs and end up caretaking.

Morrell never got a degree. He says he had an unconventional education, attended about 12 schools because his parents were always moving, but his mother used to tell him how bright he was. Invariably, he came top of the class in history and English.

He was planning to go to university and wanted to travel beforehand. He worked in Egypt researching disease-carrying organisms in water, and saved money to finance a trip around the world. Eventually, he returned home and took the short-term job as caretaker at Arkwright to tide him over. But soon afterwards, Morrell's family was struck by a double tragedy.

His sister, a nurse who was just about to qualify as an SRN, died in a terrible accident, poisoned by carbon monoxide in the bath. Then his stepfather died of a brain haemorrhage.

Morrell's mother never recovered. Not only did she need her son's constant support, she needed him to earn money. So, says Morrell, I stayed at the school and that is my life story.

Only it isn't. He decided that even though he couldn't go to university, he would teach himself. He visited libraries, auctions, exhibitions, found things out. He started to write, had papers accepted - after initial resistance - and became a closet academic.

Morrell says he inherited his brain from his mother. She was a hairdresser whose hobbies were politics and history and who taught herself Russian, French and German. "She was an extremely intelligent woman, I'm not boasting."

His mother, who died six years ago, fired his interest in Thomas Paine when she bought him a biography of the political theorist. I ask Morrell what made Paine a great man and the words rush out. "Because he had the interest of ordinary people at heart. He advanced proposals, such as old age pensions or, for you, copyright for journalists. It's all found in his Rights Of Man. He also wanted disarmament but he didn't believe in throwing soldiers and sailors on to the street."

And Morrell is still rolling out the Paine-ite principles. "He also believed children should be able to go to school without worrying about the financial consequences." Morrell says Paine's platform of ideas were too advanced for their time. "I don't think society could have afforded them all, but they form the basis of what later became the welfare state."

How would Morrell define himself politically? "I suppose I'm a radical in the old-fashioned sense of the word." What does that mean? "Well, someone who is concerned with the condition of the world. I'm an internationalist . . . I want to see things right so they benefit everybody."

Do the parents and pupils know about his scholarly life? No, he says, he doesn't think the parents do, why should they? Occasionally, he would give talks to the pupils about ancient Egypt or military history. But he says he found it difficult. He didn't quite know how to pitch it, and he worries that he talked down to them.

Morrell says the caretaking job has provided the perfect contrast to his academic research. "I don't like kids all that much, I must admit, but you do get a laugh from time to time. And I liked the hours of the job. Basically, I'm working by myself, nobody worries what you do so long as you do a good job."

He believes the scholarly world is all too often dry and venal. Look at the way it has prostituted itself to the commercial world, he says. Today, all that matters is how many papers you have had published. He cites EP Thompson as a great historian and casually mentions that the author of The Making Of The English Working Class popped round to his house for advice on Paine.

Morrell tells me he is mad about playing war games. I tell him I'm surprised that a socialist would be so keen. Why, he asks with equal surprise. "I'm not a warmonger by any means, but it is history."

He looks bashful when I ask if I can see his soldiers, but takes me up the stairs none the less. This used to be my bedroom before Mother died, he says. A huge green board takes up most of the room. He pulls out the wooden chest of drawers, which contain beautifully hand-painted soldiers. That's another of his hobbies. Each drawer is labelled - Vietnam, Boer, Spanish Civil War (the latter with the subheading "treacherous scum").

On the way out, he introduces me to a couple of photographs. One is of his mother, his stepfather and his sister. The other is a beautiful picture of his sister in nurse's uniform; she looks as if she'd happily care for the world. It was taken just before she died. He says he still misses talking politics with his mother - the hairdresser and the caretaker, the two historians.

We walk back to the station, and he says it's funny that now he's got no responsibilities to other people, he has the time to do everything he ever wanted. He talks about his plans. Maybe he will resume the travelling, to Egypt or India or anywhere. He thinks he probably will finally get around to doing that degree, through the Open University. "But maybe they'll think I'm too much of a big head," he says diffidently.

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