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Published: September 27th 2017
Ken Stebbing 2013RIP Ken Stebbing
Ken Stebbing (in the centre) - circa 2013 at Hugh Sowden's art exhibition Knighton, Powys
I first met Ken Stebbing when I arrived at BISC (the British International School of Cairo) in 1985. He'd been the Headmaster of BISC the previous year but had resigned (he told me later he hated dealing with the Board) and was now the Secondary School English Language teacher. I was the Secondary English Literature teacher. A bizarre division of labour. During my interview with Leslie and Eleanor Casbon – in a hotel near Exeter station – Mr Casbon openly queried Ken’s reasons for relinquishing the headship after only one year. I remember his comment: “I don’t know what Ken Stebbing is playing at.
Anyway, Ken and I were the two English teachers, and we got to know each other very well.
He was a decade or so my senior and was the most respected teacher in the school. He was a small man but had a natural authority and, when roused, a temper. I once witnessed him laying into an employee at the Marriott Hotel because of some silly hotel rule. He was a passionate man – passionate about books (especially Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet
), about Egypt (especially the antiquities) and about Alexander the Great.
Ken (Cairo circa 1980)
Ken looking dapper and relaxed
Ken was intensely serious and private but also a bon vivant who loved to talk and drink alcohol. The night before my first day at school, I went to his flat, and we stayed up till a late hour making merry.
As a teacher (he taught both History and English), Ken was adored by his students. This was because he was fair-minded, upbeat and gentle and because his lessons were so interesting. He employed the old-fashioned anecdotal approach to teaching, mesmerizing his students with tales of adventure and derring-do, planting unforgettable pictures in their minds. I once came across a comment about him on the internet – from a man who said that Ken’s stories about Shaka Zulu had inspired him to direct films.
Soon after my arrival in Cairo, Ken drove several of us to the Pyramids – the Giza Pyramids and the one at Saqqara – for a full-on dose of Egyptian history. He was a superb guide. I still remember Ken's story about Imhotep, the architect of the Saqqara Pyramid, boasting that his tomb would never be discovered (and, so far, it hasn't). Ken was fascinated by Tutankhamun - especially the circumstances of his mysterious
Ken (Cairo circa 1980)
Resplendent in pale suit
death. I think he had written a short play on this subject. Ken planted in my mind forever Howard Carter's reply to Lord Carnarvon when asked if he could see anything in King Tut's newly discovered tomb: "Yes, wonderful things
." And, for some reason, Ken was obsessed with Alexander the Great and the whereabouts of his corpse (Alexander's tomb has never been found). He had written an article on the great man, published in an Egyptian magazine. When I visited Alexandria for the first time, Ken lent me E. M. Forster’s famous guidebook to that city.
Ken was not, as far as I know, particularly fluent in Arabic, but he worked hard at mastering it. When I arrived, he gave me a list of the most useful Arabic words and phrases. The one bit of Arabic I remember Ken uttering was “Ya, Mohammad!” He repeated this phrase one night many times, in a loud voice, accompanied by much banging on the school gate, in an attempt to wake up the boab.
The Deputy Head at BISC, Neil Richards, revered Ken, and the affection was mutual. Neil was particularly impressed by Ken’s ability to deliver short telling speeches at
Ken (Cairo circa 1980?)
Ken with Catherine Noujaim at BISC
school assembly, and he strove to do likewise. When the new Headmaster, Alan Rowland, wrote Neil a nasty letter, Ken sprang to Neil’s defence and showed me the letter Rowland had written.
What a character Ken was! The life force incarnate – upbeat, dapper, debonair in his prime, never boring, witty and wise, animated, trademark pipe in hand, trademark military moustache, always toting his Leica on the off chance of a photo. In or out of his cups he was wonderful company. I remember one Ramadan when a few of us, including Ken, were sitting outside El Patio restaurant in Zamalek, desperate for a beer or three. Drinking alcohol in public during Ramadan was strictly forbidden, but we had a brainwave. We asked the waiter to fill a teapot with Stella beer, which was the same colour as tea. Never was so much ‘tea’ drunk in such a short time! A memorable session of banter and camouflaged beer!
In the BISC yearbook that I edited in 1986, Ken nominated as his favourite food lobster thermidor or roast lamb, as his favourite drink champagne or Bordeaux wine, as his favourite book The Alexandria Quartet,
and as his favourite music
"most things by Mikis Theodorakis
Ken was not as widely read as I was, and he knew little about English poetry. When he accepted the headship of a school in Kota Kinabalu, I visited him one summer, and he showed me the book of poetry he was using with one of his classes. He asked me to pick out any poems that I could teach with enthusiasm, and I obliged. I remember Ken’s surprise at my choices. He had never considered these poems to be any good, but I persuaded him of their value. One of them was Blake’s A Poison Tree
. As I talked about each poem, Ken took notes. Ever modest; ever the student.
In Kota Kinabalu Ken was a perfect host. He drove me around the countryside and the beaches, and we spent many hours drinking beer and putting the world to rights. And he revealed to me his greatest fear as Headmaster of the school there. It was nothing to do with enrolment or the Board or with money; no, it was coconuts. Ken was scared stiff of a coconut, from one of the many coconut trees on campus, dropping down on to a
Ken the Marksman
Ken firing an AK47 at the Cuchi Tunnels, Vietnam, 2005
child’s head during recess!
Ken’s great hobby while he was in Cairo, and for some years afterwards, was photography. He was very proud of his two Leica cameras (he had two in case one broke down) and was constantly shooting black-and-white photos. He was old-fashioned in his use of a hand-held light meter. When Cairo was put under curfew in 1985, following riots by army conscripts, Ken took a taxi into the Heliopolis danger zone – where a tourist hotel had been torched – in order to take pictures. The school magazine which Graham Burgess and I produced at the end of our first year contained Ken’s fine photos of BISC students. Ken introduced me to the great photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Smith. I remember him telling me how delighted he’d been to visit the V &A Museum in London and actually touch the originals of some Eugene Smith masterpieces. At BISC Ken taught photography as an extracurricular activity and produced a little booklet which exhorted would-be photographers to get as close as possible to their human subjects. When Ken returned to his native Liverpool, I occasionally rang him up. He had two telephone numbers – one for
Ken at the Cuchi Tunnels
Ken disappearing down a tunnel, Cuchi, Vietnam, 2005
the house, one for his dark room, where he would invariably be closeted developing his black-and-white prints.
So many other memories of Ken. His generosity to Cairo taxi drivers at night – he insisted on tipping them because it was after dusk. His love of the Alexandrian poet, Cavafy. His chance meeting with the movie star Gene Hackman in Kota Kinabalu – apparently Hackman asked him about his camera. Ken’s farewell party – organized by Rifka, who obviously adored him. His letters – written in a distinctive style and peppered with the unusual words ‘anent’ and ‘ach’. His macho side – he enjoyed target-shooting, and he had a pilot’s licence. His lovely tongue-in-cheek intro to the blues (an outrageous anti-feminist blues that would surely have got us into trouble nowadays) that four of us – me, Neil Richards, Tony Blakeley and Chris Charleson – performed in front of BISC Secondary School. Ken was savvy enough to ensure that the extravaganza be preserved for posterity by having a student (Kevin Farnes, I believe) record it on the school video camera. Ken gave me a copy, which contains the only video footage I possess of the man. A priceless artifact..
Ken at the Marriott, Cairo, 2006
Ken at the Marriott, Cairo, 2006
Ken came to my house in Reading once, when I was between jobs and living there alone. I also invited Tony Blakeley and Ivan Sayer, and we had a Cairo reunion. After that I lost touch with him. I have little idea of what he did in the years after Kota Kinabalu before his retirement to Presteigne on the Welsh border.
I visited Ken in Presteigne when I returned to England in the summer of 2015. Hugh Sowden met me at the train station and drove me to Presteigne, where I divided my time between Hugh’s mobile home and Ken’s flat. Ken lived in a spacious first-floor flat up an alleyway off the main street. He referred to this alley as 'Fagin's alley', which made me chuckle. I was astonished when he told me his rent was only £270 per month. As usual, Ken was a great host. He cooked me bacon and sausages under the grill, and we drank wine and swapped stories until the small hours.
I was all set to see Ken this summer. He emailed me, saying: "the deal is, as for all the good folks who stay, I do all the food and
At Hugh Sowden's Exhibition, Knighton 2013
cooking, you do all the washing up, and we have a joint-kitty for all the booze! " I could have visited him in July or August, before he was taken seriously ill, but I was busy seeing all my other UK friends. When I telephoned Ken – in September – and said I was ready to travel to Presteigne, he told me he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer, had various hospital appointments and could not meet me. He was as sharp as ever on the phone, making light of his infirmity and saying that he had, perhaps, “two more years
” left. I reassured him that cancer is treatable and offered the example of Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stones guitarist, who had recently undergone surgery for lung cancer. I phoned Ken once more, just before I left for Vietnam, and urged him to keep in touch.
Today, September 25th, I received the shocking news – in an email from Graham Burgess - that Ken was dead. He had been admitted to Hereford Hospital, where they found a cancerous tumour in one lung and emphysema in the other. His lungs were full of fluid and he had difficulty breathing. He died
quickly and peacefully with his best friend, Derek Hepworth, in attendance. Ken had requested no funeral and that his body be cremated.
As soon as I read Graham’s initial brief email, I asked him to send me more info – which he did later – and rang the number Graham had given me – Derek Hepworth’s number. Derek was busy on the phone, so, for some daft reason, I rang Ken Stebbing. His voice greeted me from the answering machine – the familiar jaunty tones: “Hello! This is Ken
…” Eerie. I then phoned Derek again, who gave me the full story.
Another good man gone. My friend Mark Wilson also died of cancer this summer. I will always treasure my memories of Ken: a thoroughly decent human being, a charismatic teacher with outstanding leadership qualities, a great conversationalist and public speaker, a deep thinker, a lover of life. I predict an outpouring of grief when news of his death reaches the BISC community. So many grown men and women today will remember Ken when he was their teacher – firm yet gentle, champion raconteur, father figure, an altogether remarkable man.
September 25th 2017
After writing the above tribute, I wrote the following blues:
Blues For Ken Stebbing
Woke up this morning,
Nothing on my mind.
Well, I woke up this morning,
Nothing on my mind.
Read through my emails
To see what I could find.
Good lord almighty -
It surely can’t be true!
Yes, good lord almighty,
It surely can’t be true -
Ken Stebbing’s dead,
Finest man I ever knew.
Ken Stebbing, O, Ken Stebbing,
A teacher beyond compare.
Ken Stebbing, O, Ken Stebbing,
A teacher way beyond compare –
He mixed wisdom with compassion,
Good humour with great flair.
Ken will never be forgot
By those who knew him well
No, he’ll never be forgot
By those who knew him well.
Wherever Ken is now
May he in peace forever dwell.
The world’s a whole lot poorer
Now that old Ken has gone.
World’s a whole lot poorer
Now that Ken has gone.
But that’s just the way it is –
The world must carry on. Mississippi Kevin Mulqueen 06/10/2017
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