Aamer Anwar

18th November 2011 at 00:00
The campaigning lawyer recalls an English gent who sparked his love of reading

I went through a huge amount of bullying and racism at school because of my background. After primary I was packed off to private school, which came as a great shock to the system. My dad was a bus driver at the time, so I was an Asian kid on a scholarship to Liverpool College from a working-class family.

The Toxteth riots were a bizarre experience for me. I remember parents and kids all talking of young people marching into the school to burn it down. My friends lived in Toxteth and on the night the riots started, we had to leave our house by the back door because rioting had kicked off at the bottom of our street. For us, the riots were very much about resistance to police racism and people being murdered in the street.

My years at the school were extremely difficult, but also positive because my English teacher, Mr Stott, took me under his wing. Whenever I watch the film Dead Poets Society, it reminds me of him. He was an old English gentleman from another era, an ex-Army boy with dark grey hair, always well-dressed in a herringbone suit and tie with a gold watch on a chain, and cufflinks.

At that point, I didn't have much interest in reading and I was also extremely shy. Mr Stott was a disciplinarian and he wielded the cane, but fortunately I was never the victim of it. When he told me off in the classroom, he fixed my detention in the library and introduced me to books. It opened up a whole new world to me and I'm still grateful to him for that now. I would get completely immersed in books, and today, whatever I am doing, books are still an escape for me.

Mr Stott's all-time favourite, I think, was T E Lawrence. I remember finding his writing extremely complicated and Mr Stott would explain lots of difficult things, talking you through them. He was never disparaging. He was willing to take you aside and discuss things with you; I was extremely grateful for that.

He was from the Empire and as I read more, I remember getting into heated debates with him, arguing about the role of the British in the Middle East. Those were very valuable debates which honed my skills for later years. I was always quiet and shy in class, but I started taking part in school debates where I would talk in front of hundreds of people. I think he had a big role in that.

I suspect that if he was in school now, he would be classed as a bigot and, as an anti-racism campaigner, I would feel differently about him. But I still hold him in respect. He came from a generation where Rudyard Kipling was the bee's knees. It comes in handy when I meet people from that generation because it's easy to attack and call them all kinds of things without standing back and thinking about what era they have come from, what they have been through, and realising that they have something to contribute.

Mr Stott also introduced me to Arab politics. He had been stationed in Palestine as an officer and he would tell me stories about his days in the Army. I remember him telling me about two soldiers who were kidnapped and then were found hanged. I was 12 years old. That story stood out vividly to me.

Often we would be discussing things that had nothing to do with my school work. But Mr Stott would say that school and university were not only for learning, they were for building character.

A few years after I first read Lawrence, I went back to Mr Stott and challenged him on it. I said it challenges everything you believe in, all your colonial ideas. He just smiled. He obviously thought it - his teaching - had worked.

Aamer Anwar was talking to Julia Horton


Born: Manchester, 1967

Education: Mosspitts Lane Primary and Liverpool College; Glasgow University; law at Strathclyde University

Career: Campaigning lawyer specialising in human rights and race issues; also represented Tommy Sheridan against The News of The World.

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