23 June, 2016


Those Brexiters that would have us leave Europe, shut our door on our neighbours, and reject those of other creeds and colours often quote England’s history and sovereignty to back up their claims. “We are the English, a proud and victorious nation” they tell us......”we have won World Wars and don’t need others, we are better alone”. But we always need others – we are not and cannot be alone in the world, no matter how much we desire it or however hard we try. We cannot cut ourselves off from the rest of humanity.

And, Brexiters will conveniently forget great English figures from our great history who, like poet John Donne, would reject their divisive and inward looking ideas. Donne – one of England’s greatest poets - was a lawyer, Dean of St Paul’s, Royal Chaplain, Secretary to the Keeper of the Great Royal Seal, a Member of Parliament, and he fought with Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz and in the Azores. He was our history personified - one of the greatest figures in our island's story and he told us, in a few lines of his great poetry and with some of the greatest words in the English language, things about what it is to English and about mankind and humanity itself. Things that Brexiters either don’t understand or conveniently forget:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:

Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Written in 1624 and one of his “Meditations” (No XVII) we would, everyone of us, be well advised to remember Donne’s great words when we put our crosses on our referendum ballot papers on Thursday. No matter how much we wish it we cannot cut ourselves off from the rest of mankind. We cannot deny our fellow human beings be they French, Syrian, white, black, brown, straight, gay, Afghan, German, Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Hindu, Polish, Turkish, or any other race, colour or creed – to do so, as Donne suggests, diminishes ourselves because by our very existence and being we are all part of and “involved in mankind”. Whenever we point the finger of disdain, dismay, rejection or revulsion at other members of the human race, whenever we turn love of our country or love of our beliefs into a twisted loathing of other countries and other beliefs then we also point that same twisted finger at ourselves.......”therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Donne's great lines, although written almost half a millennia ago, speak to us across the years and across the great spread of English history; they are the ultimate rebuke to all those 21st century Little Englanders who would drag us away from the rest of mankind.

Vote to Remain in Europe and by doing so confirm that you are also part of the greater body of the human race as well as part of the story of England's great history.

15 June, 2016

Dangerous Times or Sticking Up Two Fingers To Europe.

Not just a flag or a logo - the EU symbol is a
recognition of how interdependent and reliant we all are
on each other in this modern world
The other night I sat watching the international football match between Italy and Belgium. A few days ago I had watched the game between England and Russia and on the same day witnessed the violence between English and Russian football fans in France for this European competition. As I watched the games my eye was taken by the electronic advertising hoardings around the pitch – a non-stop streaming of great international brand names from around the world: American Coca-Cola, Turkish Airlines, South Korean Hyundai cars, Chinese Hisense TVs, American McDonalds burgers , German Adidas sports-wear, German Continental car tyres, Orange mobile phones, Azerbaijan Energy......the list went on and on. This morning I got the same message again as I stood in our local village greengrocer to buy a bunch of bananas. As I stood waiting to be served boxes and crates of newly delivered fruit, vegetables and flowers from far off places were being carried through the shop, their labels identifying their source: Holland, France, Spain, Argentina, Italy, Denmark, South Africa, Portugal. And, as I sit writing this blog on a wet June morning in the middle of England I am using a Japanese lap top and through the window I can see my two cars – one a German VW but built in Spain and the other a Japanese Nissan with a French Renault engine but all put together in the north east of England. And as I type this blog I am listening on my internet radio to Radio Outback - a radio station broadcasting to the remote and far off outback areas of Australia! What an interwoven and interdependent world we all now live in!

Following this line of thought, in the two European football matches that I have watched so far, and despite the fact that only one of the teams – England – is known to me, many of the names and faces of the rest of the players I recognised because they play in England even though they are Russian or Italian or Belgian. When England play Wales in a day or two the star of the Welsh team, Gareth Bale plays for Real Madrid in Spain whilst the manager of last night’s victorious Italian team will shortly arrive on London to be manager of Chelsea! Last night two players, Belgium’s Marouane Fellaini faced Italy’s Romelu Lukaku; only a few weeks ago they faced each other at Wembley when their respective club sides – Manchester United and Everton - played each other in the FA Cup semi final. And when they return to their clubs they will find new managers in charge – at Manchester United, the Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho and at Everton the Dutch manager Ronald Koeman. Football, like the rest of the world, has become interwoven and global.
England in Europe - sadly not what we want to portray

One might feel that the whole world is moving too fast with all this globalisation; there might be many dangers in it. But it is here, it is out of the bag and will not be put back. It cannot be uninvented. It is the reality of the 21st century and whether we like it or not we have to learn to live with it, control it and use it for our benefit.

One cannot deny that there are many real or potential downsides to globalisation and interdependency. From refugee or immigration crises and rioting football fans, to financial crashes, global economic downturns and terrorism we are all subject to the highs and lows of the world at large. Only a year or two ago the whole of the middle east was alight with revolution and the quest for “democracy” – the “Arab Spring” fuelled by 24 hour news and social media spread like wildfire as autocratic governments were challenged and sometimes disposed off. Inevitably other nations became involved as western governments sought to support their interest in these areas or restore order. Today, one of the fall outs from that period of turmoil is Syria where refugees are flooding away from a civil war and into Europe in the hope of a better life. Never can it be more true that a butterfly flapping its wings in some South American jungle can cause a tsunami elsewhere; whether it be football, high finance, terrorism, war, commerce, industry, recreation, food, cars, TVs or computers what happens in one place can and does have an effect elsewhere. We cannot, today, avoid the repercussions of our links with other nations. That is the modern reality of life.

Against this back drop, however, here in the UK we are hurtling towards the unforgivable and nonsensical situation where, it seems, we are happy to bury our communal heads in the sand and refuse to believe that any of this is true. With each day that passes it seems that we are more likely to deny that we are part of this great global interdependency and vote to remove ourselves from the action by leaving the EU and going it alone. When PM David Cameron, in his wisdom decided that a referendum on the issue should be held should be held it looked as if and exit from Europe was unlikely but his calculations appear to have gone badly wrong. He has opened the proverbial can of worms. Cameron only went down this route to satisfy a number of his own party’s Little Englanders all of whom live in some bizarre time warp where they deny the modern world’s international interdependency. Sadly and worryingly we now have a position where it seems Cameron’s worst nightmare is likely to become a reality – as a nation we are about to cut ourselves adrift from the rest of the world and most importantly from our nearest friends and neighbours. Cameron will not be forgiven but more important this is unquestionably a nightmare scenario for the nation.
The Sun brainwashes its mindless readers

The Little Englander reality deniers leading the calls for the UK to leave Europe have used the anti-immigrant card and as each day passes we see and hear more and more extreme views being expressed all in the name of us 'getting back our nation’ from the much vilified and feared refugees, the job taking immigrants and faceless European bureaucrats who are all perceived by Brexiters to have one intention in mind – namely to take over and do unmentionable damage to the UK. The tabloid newspaper, The Sun has come out in favour of the UK leaving the EU and is advising its readers as such. The Sun has past form on this and sadly its rabble rousing headlines and lowest common denominator content have an impact. I seriously doubt that many readers of The Sun could spell Europe or place any European countries on a map of the world but in the end that doesn’t matter, because The Sun has told them so many times that all the nation’s ills will be solved by getting out of Europe that its readers will vote for exit. It is the same with other tabloids – notably the Daily Mail which, for added flavour, will add in the jingoistic “Britain is best” and recall the name of Winston Churchill and remind the nation that we “won the war” and won’t be ruled by “Johnny Foreigner” in Brussels or Paris or Berlin. In short the right wing media is effectively brain washing the unthinking and uncaring, preying on their fears and prejudices. It is not difficult for them to do this; our island status has historically bred a suspicion in the national psyche of any foreigners that would cross the English Channel to this fair isle and the added fact of two World War victories constantly reminds the Little Englanders amongst us that “Britain is best” and that we are (they believe) naturally superior to the French, the Italians, the Germans and the rest. Finally, if they need any more convincing then they need only reflect upon two verses from our National Anthem which sing the same jingoistic 'Britain is best song' and remind we English of how we should feel about those not fortunate enough to be born English (and I choose that word carefully):

O Lord our God arise
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall
Confound their politics
Frustrate their knavish tricks
On Thee our hopes we fix
God save us all

Lord grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring
May he sedition hush

And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush

God save the Queen

Confounding the politics of other nations, scattering them wide, crushing the Scots, frustrating the knavish tricks of these unfortunates who did not have the good sense or foresight to be born English – hardly the stuff of peace and getting along together as we must all do in this interdependent world. It should be of no surprise to anyone that as England football fans smashed bottles and chairs and fought Russian hardcore extremists on the streets of Marseilles at the weekend they chanted to the Russians, the local French people and the French police “F**k off Europe, we’re all voting out”; it’s the 21st century equivalent of the National Anthem reminding knavish, rebellious enemies that they will be crushed by good old England!
"F**k off Europe we're all voting out"

I am absolutely certain that leaving the EU is the worst possible thing that we as a nation can do. No one suggests that the EU is perfect, no one can claim that the EU has quick fix solutions to the many problems that we as a world face but what is equally certain is that nor do we English have the answers. And to turn our back upon our neighbours is not only contrary and perverse it flouts all common sense and good judgement. Those that would take this path are being led there by dubious politicians with other agendas – namely their own self aggrandisement. In recent months we in the UK have mocked US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump and laughed at his bizarre policies and outbursts. We have also shaken our heads in disbelief that the citizens of the US are voting for this man in their droves. But we doing just the same. The equally bizarre and unpredictable Boris Johnson is our Donald Trump and he is ably abetted by a phalanx of other political half wits and self promoters : Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage and the rest; all people who have tuned into the prejudices and fears of ordinary citizens and are skilfully and insidiously manipulating these for their own ends. And sadly, the readers of The Sun and the Daily Mail, and thousands of other non-thinkers up and down the land are too dim or naive to see it.

I wonder, do these people who propose to vote for the UK to leave Europe believe for one minute that this will solve the nation’s and the world’s problems? If they do then they are far more stupid that even I take them for. Do they really believe that if we leave the EU that a new Prime Minister – likely to be Boris Johnson – with his rag bag collection of devious and nutty as fruit cake followers will be capable of making the sort of decisions that will turn around the whole tide of European and the wider world progress? Do they really believe that somehow this little island in the North Atlantic will have the magic bullet that will enable us to go it alone, ignore the great and complex web of interdependence and come out on top? If they do believe all this then we should all be very afraid.

But of course these people conveniently forget reality when it suits them. Someone comes along, preys on their fears and promises nirvana and they buy into it. And as the referendum gets closer and the "outers" increasingly play the immigrant card and bellow that 'England and St George is best, stuff the EU and the French, the Germans, the Italians and all the rest who are all so nasty to us poor little Englanders', then people like these will be in the ascendancy. Whether it be in the stadia or on the streets the message will be loud and clear from the Brexiters - 'Let's show these Johnny Foreigners who is boss - keep 'em out, send 'em back, let them know their place as our inferiors'

And yet only a few months ago Wembley Stadium was filled as everyone joined together and sang the French National Anthem following the terrorist atrocities in Paris. It brought a tear to our eyes - this was how we would defeat terrorism we were assured and we promised ourselves to stick together and show our love for each other and for all mankind. A few months before that we all put the French national colours on our Facebook pages; we were as one, we said, with our French brothers and sisters and we lit up our public buildings with the red white and blue of the French Tricolor  in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo ...... But now all this is forgotten: English politicians and tabloid newspapers beat the drum of division, jingoistic patriotism and simple prejudice and Englishmen are running the gauntlet of the police baton and tear gas on the streets of France. How short and shallow is goodwill to all men when tribes go to war be it on the football pitch, on the battlefield or on our streets. 
Boris Johnson - our very own Donald Trump

But when prejudice and fear raises its head the snake oil salesmen, politicians with a quick fix, the press barons, the extremists and terrorists are amongst us - not just from Afghanistan or ISIS but just as often from within our midst posing as the voice of “common sense”, They claim that they speak with the common sense voice of the people; a claim that frequently fell from the mouths of Hitler and Mussolini eighty years ago. And just as Hitler and Mussolini had their uniformed Black Shirt thugs on the streets of Berlin and Rome we now have the shaven headed, jingoistic football flag wavers loose on the streets of France. Many of these 'fans' would have been at Wembley a few months ago joining in with the French National Anthem and showing solidarity with their French footballing brothers. Now they are singing a different song to their neighbours - one of violence and thuggery and, in two weeks time many of them will again stick two fingers up to our European neighbours by voting to leave Europe. They will repeat their chant of last weekend but now it will be in the ballot box:“F**k off Europe, we’re all voting out”.

We live in very dangerous times – in the UK (or more specifically England) – we are becoming increasingly prejudiced, uninformed and unthinking; swayed by the tabloid headlines and the snake oil salesmen. And across the Atlantic the USA is in a similar predicament and increasingly looking a society in turmoil and terminal decline. It is easy to influence the uninformed and unthinking and, as Edmund Burke, the Enlightenment philosopher, a reminded everyone "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." But in 21st century Britain we are not talking of association, of coming together with our friends and neighbours to overcome our mutual problems and fears – we are talking instead of division, disunity and disharmony. Lemming like, we are stampeding towards the cliff edge driven by the unthinking, uninformed mass of EU “outers” and cheered on by the snake oil salesmen dressed up as “common sense politicians” preaching the message of disunity and disharmony. Like ostriches we are burying our heads in the sand and rejecting the interdependence of the world which is so obvious on our TV screens, in our football stadia and in our grocer’s shops.
And when the flagpole breaks...........

When, on June 23rd , we have rejected interdependence and our association with Europe and have left the EU we will stand alone, a tiny island in the North Atlantic. We will then, as predicted by Burke fall, unpitied sacrifices increasingly dependent on the goodwill not of our friends in Europe but on the USA – a society in terminal decline and possibly led by the unpredictable and unpleasant President Trump. And, if we do leave our European friends there is every likelihood of a domino effect - others may follow so we are not simply talking about our own disharmony and disunity we are endangering the harmony, goodwill and unity of a whole continent. In these unpredictable times that  not only threatens the peace of the world but almost certainly will cause economic and social consequences that cannot be controlled.  We are being led into a maelstrom by the uninformed, the uncaring, the snake oil salesmen, the hardcore right wing media, the thugs and the plain stupid. We should all be very afraid.

04 June, 2016

Making a Difference - Postscript

Ali victorious against Sonny Liston
The ink of my previous blog had hardly dried when I read this morning of the death of Muhammad Ali – the former boxing heavyweight Champion of the World. Today the media is full of his remarkable story and whether or not you have any feelings for boxing or for the man himself one cannot deny that he has been one of the great influences and characters the second half of the twentieth century. Even those like myself who are perhaps at best indifferent to boxing cannot deny that his story and what he brought to his sport in particular and to wider sport in general was both unforgettable and, many might argue with some credibility, magical. In a world obsessed with faux celebrities and glamorous fourth rate “stars” he was truly a celebrity.

A measure of his claim for celebrity status is that it was not only in the world of boxing that he was a star and a champion; he was a star and a champion of causes and beliefs on a wider front. In many ways his story, with the benefit of hind sight, anticipates our modern world. His conversion to Islam, his refusal to become part of the Vietnam War, his uncompromising arguing for civil rights in his own country and the wider world, and his ability to use the media to promote himself and intimidate his opponents in a way not seen before were all ground breaking and, I would argue, in many ways building bricks of our modern world – for good or ill.

Against Britain's Henry Cooper - a fight Ali almost lost
But as I read the many tributes and commentaries one thing stood out – how he initially came to boxing and thus his celebrity status. He came from the humblest of origins – a black man in America’s deep south when segregation and racial violence were taken as the order of things. He was born the eldest son of Cassius and Odessa Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, and named Cassius Marcellus after his father. His mother was listed on the birth certificate as a household domestic, his father as a signwriter. The family lived in the segregated city’s black west end. In the Kentucky state census rolls, all four of his grandparents were described as “free coloureds”. One of Odessa’s grandfathers, Tom Moorehead, was the son of a white man called Moorehead and the partner of a slave named simply as Dinah. Odessa’s other grandfather was a white Irishman, Abe O’Grady, born in County Clare, who married a “freed slave woman, name unknown”. Reading his background and heritage is to  read the history of the USA in just a few sentences.

It was, recalled Ali, a small but happy family in which penury was taken for granted. Ali and his brother were both good boys, neighbours later recalled, and unfailing attendees of the Baptist Sunday school. Odessa was a good homemaker, although Ali’s father liked to drink which led to occasional court appearances. He paid the fines and, as a self-imposed additional penance painted religious murals for various Baptist chapels around the city. The two boys would sometimes help. “Louisville was more peaceful, less dangerous then,” Ali’s brother Rudolph  recalled many years later, “except if we strayed off-limits, then white boys would threaten: ‘Hey, nigger, get back to your own.’”

At school the young Cassius Clay was no scholar, and by the end of his schooling, only an occasional attendee. He could scarcely read or write when he graduated from Central High School in 1960, and ranked 376th in the graduation class of 391.

A young Cassius Clay with his mentor Joe Martin
Long before then, however, he was devoted to boxing. When he was 12, in October 1954, his bicycle was stolen. Clay had sheltered from the rain with his friend Johnny Willis at an annual bazaar run by and for the black community called the "Louisville Home Show" held at the Colombia Auditorium. When he came out several hours later, full of free popcorn and hot dogs, he found his brand new red and white bike had gone - stolen.  He frantically looked round for the bike and for help. Someone told him the nearest policeman was in the basement of the Columbia.  In tears, the young Cassius raced downstairs to tell the policeman. What he found when he got downstairs was a boxing gymnasium. The white policemen, Joe Martin was a boxing coach in his spare time In his autobiography  Ali - as Clay had by then become – recalled that first experience of the boxing world: "The sights and the sounds and the smell of the boxing gym excited me so much that I almost forgot about the bike. There were about ten boxers, some hitting the speed bag, some in the ring sparring, some jumping rope. I stood there, smelling the sweat and the rubbing alcohol, and a feeling of awe came over me." Martin promised to help look for the bike but stopped the tears with an ice cream and the young Clay left with an application form to join the boxing club. The dressing- down he received from his father over the lost bike made him want to forget about the day’s events but when he watched television the following weekend and saw Joe Martin again, working with his amateurs in a boxing programme Cassius Clay suddenly decided that boxing would be his sport.

Joe Martin's role – unplanned and unknowing at the time - in sporting history can be crystallised by that moment when he calmed that angry, weeping 12-year-old  in that run down basement boxing gym. To Martin, who had run his gym since 1938, young Cassius was just another kid off the street. Martin was more social worker than boxing technician. He loved taking kids, black and white, off the streets and giving them a purpose to each day. He was also ahead of his time in the deeply segregated American south – Martin combined the previously segregated black and white gyms into one; "A boxer has to fight everybody to prove he is a champion,"  he would say – “there’s no black and white when these guys enter the ring”. Joe Martin’s ability and experience  as a coach was limited but he was a coach for the 1960 USA Olympic boxing team in Rome; and when Cassius won the heavyweight gold medal Martin, understandably, wept. As Clay moved up the professional boxing ladder he needed coaching from those with the experience at the top level but he never forgot Martin and what he had done for him on the day he lost his bicycle.
Olympic gold in 1960

And Joe Martin? In the end he was an ordinary guy doing his job but unknowingly and unintentionally he made a difference.  He didn’t aspire to producing a world champion but he was the lynch pin in doing just that. He provided the initial momentum. Martin often told of the day when the young Clay ran into his gym: He said that he just wanted to ‘whoop’ whoever took his bicycle” and I said to him: ‘Well, kid, you’d better learn to box first’. For the young Clay Joe Martin made a difference not only on that long gone day but for the rest of Clay’s life and indeed for the rest of the world – for, whatever one’s views on boxing or on Muhammad  Ali it cannot be denied that the world is a different place because of him. I would also suggest, too, that his passing makes the world a poorer place. Today, United Nations’ Secretary General  Ban Ki-moon said: “Ali was far more than a legendary boxer; he was a world champion for equality and peace. With an incomparable combination of principle, charm, wit and grace, he fought for a better world and used his platform to help lift up humanity.” He is not wrong. Ali often claimed that he was “The Greatest”; well, as another great , the American, poet and author Carl Sandberg,  famously said of Abraham Lincoln “A tree is best measured when it is down – and so it is with people”........ And so it is, too, with Ali;with his death we can get a measure of the man and I believe that he really was one of the “greats” - not one of the false gods that we often today call great but who in reality are soon forgotten when the latest fashion changes. Perhaps the best testament to the man is something that he himself said: "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it......Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”  Ali did indeed change the world for all time; as President Obama said of him today “Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it”. And all because of a lost bicycle and an ordinary American cop who took notice of a crying kid.

02 June, 2016

Making a Difference

I am an infrequent and largely unwilling user of social media – namely Facebook. But, as those who use it will know, once you are signed up then you cannot generally ignore it. With regularity one will receive some kind of communication from the site – a “friend” request, a comment about what someone is doing or how they are feeling, a link to another web site, or some long lost friend, neighbour, work colleague or acquaintance who has “found” you on the system and wants to rekindle the past. For me it is not unusual to have a contact from a past pupil that I have taught – now a parent themselves, or in some cases, a grandparent! When a contact like this occurs I often have to rack my brain trying to remember this name from the past. Fortunately, I have a pretty good memory for my past pupils so I can usually put the bits of the jigsaw back together and respond to the contact in some meaningful way. Equally, I’m pleased to say,  those who do contact me seem to have done so with mostly fond memories of their time in my class or school – so it is rewarding for me to receive their, usually, good wishes,  recall school memories and especially gratifying to learn of what they are doing as adults.
A slimmer me with one of my past classes - quite a few of these
past pupils keep in contact and are parents of teenagers themselves

Whenever I receive a communication from an ex-pupil I often reflect upon how our whole lives are made up of millions (billions?) of events and experiences that consciously or sub consciously make us what we are. And this is a reciprocal arrangement – we are not only the receivers of these experiences that make us what we are but also the givers – what we do and how we respond to others in a small way makes them what they are. It is an unavoidable consequence of social interaction. It is also true, I believe that it is often the unplanned and unexpected that have the greatest effect. As a teacher when I faced a class or taught a lesson I hoped that every child would benefit and be the better for my carefully planned lesson or programme of study but all too often in the communications that I receive from ex-pupils it is the unplanned and unexpected that is remembered most and which has perhaps had the longer lasting effect; the actual facts of the lesson(s) long forgotten but the overall impact still there, imprinted upon the subconscious. I’m sure that this is right – that in our daily dealings with we often retain little of the detail but much more of the overall and often unplanned effect.

As an example of this I received a communication some months ago from a young man who I had taught as a 10 year old. He was a bright lad but sadly there were problems at home and he found school discipline and expectations a trial – he was frequently in trouble, stubborn and not making the best of the opportunities. I spent  much of my time each day trying to keep him on the straight and narrow – and usually feeling that I had failed. I feared that he would increasingly find himself in trouble as he grew up so it was gratifying when I received a Facebook contact from him after more than twenty years to find that he was now successful in both his work and his personal life. He acknowledged his school days problems in a follow up email to me after making the initial Facebook contact:

“I'm so pleased that you still remember me after all this time Mr Beale! You are correct in remembering  that I was with you during the early 90's, probably the best years of my school life! I always remembered you because I used to love your assemblies, I have in my mind you used to tell the school stories about Preston North End.......as you probably remember my upbringing wasn't always ideal and unfortunately probably reflected in my behaviour at times. However I do feel that I have come out well.....I have been lucky enough to travel to some amazing countries and cities through the company and I am currently working in the South of France...... I'm so pleased that you 5 healthy grandchildren and you see them often..... they are lucky to have you as a grandparent! You were an amazing teacher and a great person to all of us at school so I know they are very lucky children!......”

He was right – I often used to joke with the boys about the best football teams – they always supported the big name teams like Liverpool or Manchester United so it came as a bit of a shock when they realised that Mr Beale supported an unknown team like Preston North End. He was right, too, about the assemblies – as soon as he mentioned it I remembered well how he would often walk around the playground with me asking about the story that I had told in assembly that day. My assemblies had obviously had an impact, although I never imagined or realised that almost 30 years later he would still be able to recall the pleasure and happy memories that they had given him. It was both humbling and very gratifying to hear from this young man who had had a rough time when he was a child – and now was settled and doing well in another part of the country – and that deep down he had good memories of times past.

It was not as dissimilar story with a girl that I taught as an 11 year old who wrote to me:

“......I often think to myself I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had you as my teacher all those years ago. Before your class I was a school avoider, and used to protest when my mum would try to drag me in each morning. But something changed that year in your classroom, I began to not only enjoy school, but I began to believe in myself and my capabilities. I wasn't the prettiest child, or the most agile, but through your investment in me as an individual, like all the individual pupils you have ever taught, I found my niche as more of an academic than athlete!

From that point I always wanted to be a teacher, as I loved being in a classroom. And that's what I did. I went to the University to study Sociology and have been teaching in secondary schools in and around Nottingham before settling into my current role as a Department Head of Sociology at a local college.

So I must thank you, so very much. I don't know what would have happened if I had not had you as my teacher all those years ago. I can only hope that I might have even half the impact you have had on my own students......”

It was, of course, very touching to read this – like the first mail it really did bring a tear to my eye – and as I read it I realised how little we really know of other people. I remember this young lady well; as an 11 year old she was hard working, quiet and unassuming but I never once realised what was going on in the background to her school life, never suspected the disenchantment that she had with school and never knew what an impact I had unwittingly had upon her. It was, as a say, humbling and at the same time more than a little daunting to realise that such is the impact that we can, for good or ill, have upon the lives of others – even when we do not suspect it. Of course, as a teacher it is maybe easier to cite these examples. I’m sure that every teacher can quote similar cases – dealing with people is the stock in trade of a teacher so it is not unreasonable to assume that we will have  a personal effect on those we deal with. For others it may not be so easy, but, I believe it is still true – that everyone, no matter what their job, position or role in society will be impacted by and impact upon others in ways they might never imagine. I have been reminded of this in the past day or so.

Perhaps my most enduring and still haunting memory of my childhood is of myself sitting, late at night, at the top of the stairs, tears streaming down my face, as I listened to increasingly acrimonious arguments taking place downstairs. This was not infrequent – it was part of the weekly ritual of my childhood. Although I loved my mother dearly, I knew (even as a child) that she was not the easiest of women and my father, a mild man seemed to take these verbal assaults by my mother as a fact of life. Whatever my father did it seemed (and still seems) to me he could not win; in her eyes he was always to blame for the family’s trials and tribulations. One of the frequent causes of arguments was about the family car. We were not well off and each car we owned was long past its best. Fortunately dad was knowledgeable about cars and engines and could always manage to keep the "old banger" on the road. If, however there were problems then it was always dad’s fault; if the car was off the road and so not available to take mother shopping or to work then it was his fault “for always messing about with it” or if he had to buy a new part to repair it he was “wasting money that we can’t afford on your toy” . He couldn’t win whatever he did.

These arguments, and the way in which the car was so often a touchstone for anger and bitterness, had an impact upon me which lasts to this day. I will always shy away from angry disputes - preferring to withdraw into myself and back off before things escalate into an argument. And since those childhood days, I have always had a huge anxiety about cars and their maintenance. When Pat and I married and got our first car – and every car since – having the car serviced or doing some repair work on it has always been a concern: how much will it cost, will the job be bigger than I anticipated, will the car be alright when the repair is done? If I took my car to the garage for a service then my heart would be in my mouth as I waited for the phone call to say that the work had been carried out and that all was well. Often, when we were younger I would do the work myself to save money, but then spend the next few days and weeks worrying that I had done it properly and that the car was working properly and would not let us down. And all the time, over all the years when I took my car to the garage for its service or repair, deep in the dark recesses of my mind I could still hear my mother’s angry voice hectoring my father for the time and money that he spent on the old cars that we owned in the 1950s and 60s. Even now when I have two new cars sitting on my drive those unpleasant childhood memories still gnaw away at the back of my mind – are the cars running well, will they need work done on them, how much will it cost, how long will they be off the road? All totally irrational and unnecessary but, never the less, an ever present anxiety.

But, about thirty five years ago my anxieties were lessened considerably. I needed a repair done on a car that we owned at the time and I was recommended by a neighbour to take it to the local village garage rather than use bigger garages in the area. I did so and a mechanic came onto the forecourt to look at the old mini while I began to explain what was wrong. Before I could complete my explanation the mechanic smiled and told me what the problem was. a common one that he had seen many times before. He switched on the engine and anticipating what I was going to say confirmed what needed to be done. Yes, he could fix it easily within an hour or so – it was no problem to him. Barrie was about my age, his overalls covered in oil and an oily flat cap perched upon his head. “Bring the car round tomorrow and I’ll do it for you” he smiled. “How much will it cost”? I asked nervously. He gave me a rough estimate and promised that it wouldn’t be more. The next day I took my car in – anxious about what would happen. It would be ready early in the afternoon I was informed and so for the rest of that morning I worried that it would cost more than anticipated or that the repair would fail. Early in the afternoon I returned and as I turned the corner where the garage stood there was my little mini waiting for me. Barrie took me out to the car explained that he done the work and then listed several other minor adjustments that he had made and which needed doing – and all for the price he had quoted. This might seem an everyday thing, but at the time it was important to me – for some reason I felt that I could trust this man and the work that he did.

For the next 30 plus years or so Barrie serviced my cars. This little oil stained man with his flat cap cared for all the vehicles that he serviced like a nurse might tend her patients – knowing every little detail and quirk of each. If he happened to be on the garage forecourt as I drove on he would greet me by telling me what was wrong and what needed to be done to the car before I had the time to get the words out; like Sherlock Holmes he could pick up the tiniest of clues to home in on the facts of the case! And it was always the same as that first visit – when one went collect the car there were always little extras done without asking and all with a very careful explanation of what and how work had been done – and what I should look for in the future. Barrie wasn’t just a skilled mechanic – he was a born communicator: always a ready smile, a man who loved his job, a craftsman and someone who was a perfectionist. Nothing left his care until it was working perfectly. Of course, what I had discovered was what many others already knew – Barrie’s work was legendary in the area. That was why the little back street garage was always busy and so highly thought of. Each time I drove my car off the forecourt I felt that I was sitting in a new car. No longer was getting the car serviced or repaired a thing to be feared.

Where I usually met Barrie - on the garage forecourt

And so the years passed and then about seven or eight years ago Barrie announced his retirement. A collection was made at the garage and I know that many, like me where delighted to contribute something for this man who had served us so well. Many, like me, asked Barrie if he would continue to service our cars privately now that he had left the garage’s employ but he steadfastly and rightly refused – he didn’t want to upset his former employer. But, it came as no surprise to anyone when, a couple of years later, the owner of the garage decided to retire himself and sell the business. Barrie’s retirement had hit the garage hard. It was sad because the garage was a good place; the other mechanics were excellent but Barrie had that little indefinable extra and had almost proved himself irreplaceable. When Barrie left so too did many customers. Gordon, the owner, couldn’t find anyone to quite replace the smiling, chatty, oil covered little man in the flat cap.

For the past few years Barrie and I have occasionally met on the village High Street or on the Village Green – he often walking his little dog. We would pass the time of day, talk about cars or complain about the weather, the wayward youth of the village or about our latest holiday – two grumpy old men setting the world to rights. But recently, as my back pain has increased, I get out less and when I do see him he seems no longer the smiling, chatty man that I once knew, who would talk so enthusiastically and knowledgably about cars and engines and gearboxes. The years, as they have for me, have caught up with him. How quickly the merry-go-round of life turns!

I saw him a day or two ago as I walked home from the doctor's surgery and as I walked up my road I reflected how Barrie would probably never realise how he had, unknowingly and without intention, impacted upon my life and made my life in a small way so different. No longer did I worry in quite the same way about keeping the cars maintained – deep down I knew that the real or perceived problems associated with my cars could and would be fixed by someone who I learned to trust implicitly; an activity that had once been a worry was now less so. Barrie, a gentle, unassuming man would, I know, be embarrassed by me paying him this compliment – for him it was just his job, and a job that he loved, but just his job. He would say that he was just a car mechanic, not clever or special; but he was special and it was how he did his job that made  him so and which made the difference - and in a way that he never anticipated or intended. He wasn’t just repairing my car but by his actions and manner repairing me too! It didn’t make my anxieties and gremlins disappear completely but boy, did it help for I knew now that even though I might still hear my mother’s hectoring words in the middle of the night, car repairs were no longer a thing to dread – Barrie, I knew, would quietly, professionally and enthusiastically solve everything and in doing so give what I can only describe as peace of mind. He had the car mechanic’s equivalent of a doctor’s “bedside manner” – no matter the problem he could allay fears and put it all into a positive perspective. To many that may seem trivial and silly – and I know that my stupid anxieties were, and are, just that, stupid and silly. But what seems to me to be not trivial or silly is the fact that all of us, in our dealings with others can and do have effects and impacts that we never planned or intended and which, whether we like it or not, do make a lasting impression for good or ill on those that we meet. Maybe there is an important life lesson in that for us all.