Mr Jim Stephens was my lecturer and tutor in criminal law in my second year at UCL. Two years later, he would still smile and say hello whenever we happened to meet on the streets of Bloomsbury, or in the corridors of the law faculty. This would perhaps be understandable if I had been a good student of criminal law, but I wasn’t. Through no fault of his, I missed at least a third of the lectures, and was usually woefully unprepared for tutorials. But even though I certainly entered the doors of his room with very little in my mind, I always left with much more.
He bewildered and frustrated us at first. The robustness that cut through the dead air of lecture theatres and kept even sleepy me awake as he snarled “Hey, FATTY!” in lectures on provocation was almost too much to handle in his faculty room, where each of us in turn would be hemming and hawing at the end of his penetrating gaze as we racked our brains for the answer he was looking for. He insisted on a highly systematic approach to dissecting the many different elements of a problem question, and in my conceptual haziness I chafed as what I thought were reasonable answers were often not considered precise enough. Over time though, things got clearer, and everything started to make sense. I believe his rigour in those tutorials was behind my eventual First in criminal law.
It would be inaccurate to frame this post as a goodbye to a beloved teacher. The nature of my university life was that I engaged with my teachers as little as humanly possible, because I was acutely aware that I was quite possibly their laziest student, and if they didn’t already know that, I didn’t want them to find out. But when I heard the news today, memories of Mr Stephens were easy to find, easier to find than memories of most of the people who have only just lectured me in NUS. I remember a clear blue gaze, a ready smile, and pavement conversations where he seemed genuinely interested in what and how I was doing, and all this for a student who faltered on questions like “What is the leading case in defining recklessness?”
The next time I am in London, Bloomsbury, and the corridors of the UCL law faculty, will feel a little emptier.