Mr Simpson and Mr North by Rageh Omaar

The journalist recalls the history teacher nicknamed ‘Womble’, who loved to go off on tangents, and ‘Bugsy’, the affable scouse-accented French tutor
2nd June 2017, 12:00am
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Mr Simpson and Mr North by Rageh Omaar

Mr Bill Simpson was the man who really opened up my love of history.

He taught me at Cheltenham College and was a published author. He’d written a book on the American revolution, which I read in my first year of A level. It was not a textbook and it was amazing. It allowed me to read history, as written by a historian, for the first time, rather than learning about it in the classroom.

Mr Simpson would hold his classes more like lectures. He’d go off on tangents, asking for people to chip in. I remember having conversations with him about lots of things, like the nature of genius.

He was quite small and he always had chalk on the elbow of his jacket, from leaning against the blackboard. His nickname was “Womble”, which was a term of affection. He was kind and very human, not a forbidding teacher. He was prepared to talk about things that were engaging and interesting for you. It didn’t have to be academic; he just wanted to engender or propel one’s curiosity. That’s what he was always trying to do.

I was one of about only four non-white boys at Cheltenham, along with my best friend, who was Malaysian. When you’re a teenager, you have to go through a lot of growing up very quickly, and of course the influence of the group of friends you have is very powerful. But in our case, the pressures were added to because our skin colour made us stand out.

Mr Simpson very much took an interest in the possibility of my going to Oxford and this led to a very pronounced change in me. I had always been much more interested in mucking around with my friends in class and had a bit of a reputation of picking all the easiest routes and cutting corners. But once I got into sixth form, I suddenly had a reputation for burying my nose in books.

At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I was fascinated by the world, foreign countries and events around the globe. Even then, I was quite a keen newswatcher, but I think that was to do with my own upbringing, being from Somalia and having lots of relatives living all over the world.

I’m glad I didn’t know what I wanted to do so early, to be honest. I think it is one of the unhealthy things about the UK academic system that you are encouraged to “know what you want to do” with the rest of your life very early on.

My connection with Mr Simpson continued after school, as his son Chris - one of the best BBC Africa correspondents, who very sadly passed away this year - became a very good friend of mine throughout my career in journalism.

Another teacher who was important to me was Mr Bugsy North - a French teacher from Liverpool with a heavy Scouse accent that he was very proud of. This made him a bit of an anomaly in a very pukka English public school.

Rugby and cricket were the main sports, but his obsession was with Liverpool FC. He wasn’t shy about his working-class roots and was very well liked.

He would go off on tangents about The Beatles and anything from Liverpool, yet when he taught, he had the most beautiful, effortless French accent. Then he’d stop and start talking Scouse again.

He was someone you could josh with, and he’d join in with your games, nicking the football and dribbling with it.

He had a little bit of a mullet, wore John Lennon glasses and was called “Bugsy” because of his prominent front teeth. A charming, really nice guy.

Rageh Omaar was speaking to Lily Farrah

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