The academic and railway historian Ben Fisher, who has died unexpectedly aged 45, was in some ways a figure from a past age, in others a man with his face set very firmly towards the future.
The son of Roy Fisher, the poet and musician, and the former Barbara Venables, he grew up mainly on the university campus at Keele. Rather than continue at Cambridge, where he read Modern and Medieval Languages at Selwyn College, for his PhD, he chose instead to go to Bangor, where he stayed for the rest of his life, moving seamlessly from research student to Lecturer in French to Head of Department and, by the time of his death, its longest-serving staff member. Congenial as he found colleagues and students, Ben happily admitted that the move was influenced as much by the number of preserved narrow gauge steam railways nearby.
Ben was sceptical of transient critical theories and careerist academic job-hoppers; his concern as a teacher was simply to help his students learn French language, literature and cinema as well as possible. That didn't consist only or primarily of chalking up Firsts; the number of tributes after Ben's death from students who wouldn't have completed their degrees at all without his going the extra mile for them said far more.
An inspiring, idiosyncratic and very funny teacher – a post on his students' Facebook page describes a class that had to be stopped when Ben became helpless with silent laughter – his lateral thinking with new technologies also made an immeasurable contribution to the School of Modern Languages at Bangor, perhaps most significantly as the co-developer (with Adrian Ritchie) of the UK's first digital language laboratory, and director of the Multimedia Language Centre which grew out of it. His interest in technology was at the forefront of his research activity in the 1990s when he took part in and then directed the ESTEL project which brought multilingual satellite television into classrooms all over Wales.
Ben's PhD was on the work of the complex, often irreverent French avant-garde writer, Alfred Jarry. The volume was published by Liverpool University Press as The Pataphysician's Library (2000) and received a string of highly complimentary reviews. Ben continued to work in this field with a series of articles in major journals covering a variety of often under-researched authors of the avant-garde. At the time of his death he was embarking on a new project – a French Symbolist Reader.
Ben's other publishing project, whr.bangor.ac.uk/ , has been a public work in progress for 10 years: the official website of the rebuilding of the Welsh Highland Railway, the 26-mile narrow gauge line connecting Caernarfon and Porthmadog, skirting Snowdon, which closed in 1937. Detailing every stage of this massive undertaking, Ben's now majestic site became and remains one of the most visited of its kind in the world, with literally millions of hits.
Since Ben didn't live to see the line's re-opening, due in 2010, his ashes will travel on the first through train from Caernarfon to Porthmadog instead: his site and photographs are also to be published in book form under the title Welsh Highland Adventure.
Benjamin James Valentine Fisher, lecturer in French and railway historian: born Birmingham 3 September 1963; died Bangor, Gwynedd 13 August 2009.
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