Monday, August 24, 2015

three down

I'm preparing a sermon for the start of the new academic year at my old school. I sort of know what I'm going to say, but thought I'd browse through the school website as I marshal the right words into the right order.

There in the OB section is notice of the passing of one of my History teachers, Alan Petford. He was just thirteen years older than me. My school was his first posting.

Scholarly, enthusiastic, endlessly giving of his time to encourage students who showed any flicker of interest or initiative, Alan was old school when old school was already out of fashion. I remember being driven to a sixth-form History conference in Lancaster in his old (and I mean 1950s) Rover through the Forest of Bowland (no motorways for us) and simply being grateful he hadn't chosen to drive his more familiar Landrover to school that day.

He was a stickler for punctuality and politeness in class. No chewing in Mr Petford's class... And his academic gown (it was that kind of school) brought its own cloud of dust wherever he went, as he never saw the purpose of a board duster when the edge of that scholarly garment, when not wrapped round him for warmth, was perfect for the job.

The photo from the school site shows his craggy features and piercing gaze. It misses the slightly crazed hair of his youth. And of course, the angle of his eyebrows when quizzical or intense or crossed or...just being Mr Petford.

When I started at grammar school, I had David Ramm; and then Lynn Martindale the year after. They returned as my sixth-form history teachers. But Alan Petford taught the years in between (French Revolution; England & Ireland in late 18th & early 19th centuries), though in the sixth-form I had him for an extra Local History AO level. These days I seem endlessly to be renewing, re-ordering and renovating church buildings; it was Alan Petford who first taught me church architecture, albeit of a mostly Lancastrian and mostly seventeenth and eighteenth century bent.

A few of us wanted to form a debating society. There existed one for sixth-formers, but nothing below that. I think I was in 2X, and we asked our form master if he'd help us, and he did - but he quickly passed us on to another teacher whom he thought would do a better job. The "another teacher", of course, was Alan Petford. Alan gave us time, energy, ideas, patience, encouragement and much more. He put up with us when ill-prepared and beamed when we triumphed. He found milk and tea before meetings and helped us wash up afterwards. He even sat and offered wisdom when we bothered to realise that he was always ready to help before the event. I suspect my weekly public speaking now owes more to his early interventions than I am even vaguely aware.

I was of course a History Boy. Seventh Term Oxbridge entry exam, after A levels, followed by a train journey from Preston station and then interview at Merton College.  David, Lynn and Alan all played their part in that term, with Mr Ramm heading it up. I tried to keep contact with them afterwards, when I went to university. But first Lynn passed, and then David, and of course getting an email out of Alan Petford was never going to happen.

Now it's three down.

Funny, at junior school I was top of my class and my year every year. At grammar school I never topped a class again. Well, in the sixth form I once came top of English; I was of course in the History set so that was unfortunate. But I had three History teachers who made me feel top of the class every time I was with them, and who gave me an academic direction I'd never otherwise have known. It's a commonplace to talk of people who touch our lives, but they did. And though it's a long time ago - I left school more than thirty years ago - their touch remains with me and I remain, always, thankful.