More than 200 people packed into Fulfen primary school, outside Lichfield, last Wednesday, to listen to an hour of speeches and join revelry to mark the great man's retirement after 14 years in charge there. There were anecdotes aplenty. Dave Evans, Staffordshire's district inspector, recalled McDonnell's typically robust response to the introduction of national testing in 1995: sending a spoof advert to the county bulletin for an exams officer to be paid an extra four scale points. The bulletin's editor failed to spot the joke and the ad was published. Of the 11 applications McDonnell received, the first he opened was from Evans himself.
It was left to McDonnell to cheer up a glum journalist at the party who was mourning the loss of one of his most lively and outspoken contacts.
He recalled his first live interview on local radio, while in London lobbying for the National Association of Head Teachers. The call came through while he was in the lavatory so, never one to be intimidated by the media spotlight, McDonnell spent three minutes expostulating on matters educational... with his trousers around his ankles.