Fran Jenkin – the Fran was short for ‘Franscilla’, something almost nobody knew, and which we’d laugh at sometimes – was an astonishing person. She died on Saturday, having survived for the last few months the way she had lived, by force of will. I’d known her since about 1975, when she came to Exeter to do an M.Ed, and wound up teaching at Exeter College, initially part-time, and soon full-time, taking on every petty establishment across which she came, always with good humour, and with a sense of what was politically right. It is easy to make fun of political correctness: the phrase has become almost a term of abuse. But Fran embodied it. She devoted almost every hour of her life to helping people – refugees, asylum-seekers, the overlooked and uncared-for – gain respect, gain recognition. All this was done with a generosity and ferocity of will which was not at odds, as it might have been, with her sunny disposition. She didn’t care what people thought of her at all. She had no need to. They knew she was as honest as the day, and they knew that, when it came to moral honesty, she was an inspiration.
She wasn’t a plaster saint. She liked to take risks – including marrying, in Cuba, one Christmas Day, a man much younger than her, and whom she spent the next few years battling to get to Exeter. That the marriage didn’t make it was beside the point. She wanted to try to find out if it could be made. She had that toughness.
Her teaching was as untouchable as it was unusual. Students in her groups were allowed to paint the rooms whatever colour they wanted. She had them writing and painting, with music playing, in Literature lessons. It looked like a hippy experiment. It wasn’t: it was a terrific piece of teaching because she held it together. If she was going to experiment, it was no holds barred. Her students – not for nothing was she the student liaision officer, campaigning tirelessly for their rights – worked with her, not against her. And so they succeeded. I watched her teach several times, and any initial worries that it was a high-wire act were soon dispelled. She never ran a session unless she knew why she was running it. She was a great teacher-trainer herself.
She was scrupulously fair, and would tell you quietly if she thought you weren’t. She was always right, and – unless she was up against a bully, whom she would outface with patience – she would make her point with good humour. The only time she took fairness too far was during the two years we shared an office. A pair of pigeons settled on some battered filing cabinets outside the door. They were soon breeding like pigeons, pecking our heads when we tried to go in or out, and the whole balcony became a sort of testament to her determination to let anything live. Even pigeons. (She was parodying herself brilliantly: she did not moan when, unmysteriously, the estates team moved in and got rid of them during a holiday.) In her thirties, she took up the cause of Exeter F.C., and this too started as self-parody, before it became a lovely obsession, and one she could combine with eradicating racism and sexism in football.
It is pretty easy to describe Fran in a way that makes her seem almost determinedly a patron of causes which looked as if they might be lost. But she wasn’t like that at all. She liked her vice: roll-ups; and enjoyed having her nose pierced when she was a grandmother. She was the best listener I’ve ever met, because she wouldn’t just listen, she would prompt and advise. She devoted herself to making sure that others were happy in their skins. She was a lovely, lovely person. And all this without ever taking the credit. She felt privileged – one of her favourite words – and she wanted to make sure no-one was underprivileged. She was integrity incarnate.
I’ve never met anyone like her: always there when you needed her, private when she wanted to be, implausibly ten years old than me, and with a nice look, lips pursed, head on one side, which said ‘Do you really mean that?’ She personified integrity. Hundreds of people, literally hundreds, will be thinking and saying the same. I love this photo of her, in 1987, with Art/English students who worshipped her every word: and I feel for her son, Laurence, whom she put first throughout her life.