Keele Icons – Martin Dent
Martin Dent was appointed a lecturer in Politics at Keele University in 1963, where he remained until retiring in 1990
He was a campus legend; the archetypal absent-minded professor. He appeared to live in a state of permanent chaos and disorder: the interior of his car was once found to contain a stash of coins and notes and 93 biros, in addition to books, medicines and a compass which he used, he said, to work out whether he was travelling north or south on the motorway!
The second son of a brewer, Dent was born in July 1925 and grew up at Harlow in Essex . The chaos began early in life. Educated at Eton, he found it difficult to organise his life according to the usual rules and norms, being constantly in trouble for arriving late at classes, losing books and having his clothing in various states of disarray. At the same time he was probably the only boy in the school who regularly read the Financial Times
After serving in the Army at the end of the war he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History and Economics. In 1952 he became an Administrative Officer with the Colonial Service in Northern Nigeria at Makurdi, the capital of Benue Province, where he endeared himself to the local population by learning their language and traditions
In 1960 Dent single-handedly quelled a riot among the Tiv people. As fellow lecturer Donald Nicholl wrote: “A populous African tribe had broken into rioting and armed rebellion. To have quelled them by force would have required thousands of troops. Martin, however, simply went among them unarmed, unprotected, stumbling along with his spectacles slipping down his nose and with his bush shorts slipping over his knees. In village after village he addressed the people, charmed them and calmed them, until soon the rioting ceased”
When some of the Nigerians who had helped him stop the riots were accused of being involved in starting them, Dent gave evidence on their behalf. His reward was to be dismissed, without a pension, for conduct that was “bad for the British Empire”. But the Tiv people never forgot him, and in 1994 bestowed on him the chieftainship title Asor-Tar-U-Tiv (“one who heals the land of Tiv”)
Stories of his life at Keele are legion:
• He once drove to London for a conference, caught the train back, and then reported his car stolen to the police when he got home
• My fellow student Paul ‘Eddy’ Edwards taking advantage of the shambolic state of his desk, claiming he’d handed in an essay that had never been written, and negotiating a B
• He went to the vet, puzzled, and asked why his chickens were dying. The vet asked him when the last time was that he’d fed them. He had forgotten to do so
• A decent cricketer, he played with his trousers held up by a club tie – I’d like to think it was MCC can’t be sure. He was capable of executing the most sublime late cut and bowled lollipop donkey drops which took wickets
• Another fellow student Martin ‘Alf’ Wynn remembers going to his house on campus for a meal along with some other students. The chickens were still very much frozen when they arrived with Martin wondering how to thaw them and proposing just to put them in the oven for not very long. An alternative solution had to be found!
• One lady was invited to dinner at what Dent described as an excellent restaurant. She dressed for the occasion, only to be told on arrival that the place had closed three months earlier. Fortunately, Dent said, there was a good fish and chip shop nearby, to which they happily adjourned. Could be why he never married!
• Martin was famous with the telephone people in rural Shropshire where he had a home: he had to call them on many occasions to replace his phone because a cow had been sitting on it … or so went the story!
• His constant and faithful companion was his beloved border collie Ripple, whose ‘lead’ was actually a piece of string. He also misplaced Ripple many times, and, sadly, the final time poor old Ripple was never found
Perhaps Martin’s greatest achievement was as one of the founders of the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign, which is now considered a major breakthrough in the history of relations between the developed and developing worlds. The campaign started in 1990, when Martin asked students at Keele to sign a petition calling for the cancellation of the crippling debt owed by the world’s poorest countries by the year 2000
By the turn of the century, more than 20 million people from 155 countries had added their names to the Jubilee 2000 petition, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a patron, and among the supporters of the movement were Bono, Muhammad Ali, Bob Geldof, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour. Campaigners estimate $120bn of debt has been written off. Martin was appointed OBE for his contribution
As Professor Martin Harrison, a long term colleague at Keele said on Martin’s death in May 2014, “He was the sort of teacher that people remembered affectionately and they would always have some sort of anecdote, particularly about his generosity and enthusiasm. When people referred to Martin, it was always with a smile”
Anyone who has more stories about Martin, please feel free to comment