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notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Tuesday, December 04, 2007Gill Gibbons and The Teapot Prize I can't say that I know Gill Gibbons though I'm certain that I was at a few parties with her when I worked with her (now ex-) husband Pete, then head of Beaufort Street Primary School in Liverpool 8 a decade ago. But what a joy to watch her press conference, back in Britain after her release, showing such warmth and graciousness towards everyone involved in the wierd episode of her imprisonment, including her captors. In a good 24 hours for our city (hosting both the Turner Prize Award and the Royal Variety Performance last night) I think Gill's generous spirit says as much about the culture of this place as will all the glitzy events planned for 2008. "I wouldn't like it to put anybody off going to Sudan. In fact, I know of a lovely school that needs a new Year Two teacher," she said, and later, thinking of her own situation now and putting a very different spin on a well-worn Liverpudlian expression, "I'm looking for a job..."
Odd how things re-emerge in unexpected combination. I've set aside this week to clean out my room, to clear some shelf space so as to be able to reclaim the floor and declutter my desk. Thus hopefully decluttering my head space too. I've been doing things I've never contemplated before like chucking out rows of old journals, stacks of magazines and newspaper cuttings and the bulk of my papers from university and various colleges, which have followed me from house to house in the five moves I've made since that first one in 1995, to live and work in the community which Pete Gibbons and his staff served so well.
I began this task of clearance quite ruthlessly - not stopping to re-read all those old notes from Welsh History (Cardiff Uni 1985) and Modern Critical Theory (1987); resisting the temptation to revisit my collection of Ship of Fools (the publication, from the early 1980s, many years before the website was conceived) or to bask in the triumph of Wallop!, the staff magazine of The Ranch which I created and produced bimonthly in my year there on the office's inky old Gestetner mimeograph. These latter collections remain, of course - priceless and irreplaceable - but of my college work I've kept only the typewritten essays, ten large files reduced to one thin one.
However I was bound to stop and linger somewhere, and it was when I got to the box full of papers from my time in Toxteth, and to what I consider one of the best pieces of work I've ever completed, a 36-page page booklet published by The Bluecoat Press called Bye Bye Bewey Board: Beaufort Street School 1875-1998, a Souvenir History which I co-edited and loved working on. This sepia-toned tome was distributed to all connected with the dockland school on the closure of its crumbling buildings and merger with another local primary in my final year as a community worker in the area. It was the fruit of a year's work with Year Six, a project to research the history of the school involving field trips, teaching sessions (a new experience for me) and hosting visits of ex-pupils and staff whose stories were recorded by the pupils. Then-current teaching staff keenly supported it, as did the Parent-School Partnership (a school within the school to support and resource local adults) and the Friends of Bewey, a lively group of staff and parents past and current who cared deeply about the school - and each other - in which the boisterous Pete Gibbons played a lead role.
In the Victorian era Bewey kids would have been described by posh moralising commentators as waifs and strays. They were certainly among the poorest in a city of very poor children. Many of the pictures in the book witnessed to this remaining the case right through to the 1990s. Poverty, of course, brings all manner of health and behavioural problems in its wake. But the Bewey book shows that throughout its history these children were given dedicated teaching by people who knew they were up against it but who committed themselves sacrificially to the place and its people. Among them Mrs Richmond, a head who in the 1970s instigated the annual Teapot Award which was given to the pupil who, she then said, is 'always smiling outside, and more importantly, inside.'
BBC Radio Merseyside's Roger Phillips was a Bewey governor in Mrs Richmond's time and in the foreword he wrote for the book he said that 'she was more of a social worker than a teacher and fiercely proud of her school.' She set the standard which Pete Gibbons and the other colleagues I worked with, followed so keenly. That's why I was so proud to produce such a rich record of their achievements as the story of the school came to an end.
As I write this Roger Phillips will be preparing to take phone-in calls on his lunchtime show, where Gill Gibbons is bound to be one of the main topics for discussion. People will be reflecting on the words she spoke earlier today. "I'm just an ordinary middle aged primary school teacher," she said. Just! Ok, that's true: but also 'just' a remarkable person. The book reminds me - I've been privileged to work with many like her.