Allied in acrobatics

28th June 1996 at 01:00
The spirit of war hero Harry Ree (left) lives on in a trust that fosters European unity. Reva Klein sees its work in action at a youth circus in Germany.

Thanks to the prevailing spirit of a lifelong educationist, idealist and French Resistance hero who died five years ago, a group of eight young people from Leeds were having the time of their lives. They were members of Circus Zanni, a youth circus, who had travelled to Germany courtesy of the Harry Ree Trust which aims to foster European co-operation and forge foreign friendships.

For eight hours a day, youngsters aged from 11 to 20 rehearsed and performed with French and German counterparts during their summer half-term as part of the Hamm International Youth Circus Festival. After a hard day at the tightrope, they would retire at night to the homes of German families in Hamm, near Dortmund, consuming, among other things, vast quantities of German cuisine.

Some of the Leeds children had a smattering of French. None had so much as a "Sprechen sie English?" with which to amuse, delight and exasperate their hosts. But whatever the British brought with them during the intensive week in Hamm, they went home with a lot more than a few acquired words, an enduring aversion to sauerkraut mit meatballs and a new approach to clowning around.

As 17-year-old Clare put it in a rare moment when she wasn't hanging upside down from a trapeze supervised by a German teacher, "Everyone from the different countries are mixing well, no matter what their ages. I think it's because we're all working together for this performance. Although it's difficult for the workshop leaders to explain moves on the trapeze in different languages and it's difficult for us to understand them, somehow it's all working. I've been learning a lot, working with different people with different ideas."

While Malcolm Rifkind, Foreign Secretary, and Douglas Hogg, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, scuttled around Europe in their improbably dubbed Charm Offensive, trying to undo the damage caused by Britain's "non-cooperation" policy over the beef ban, these British, German and French circus aficionados didn't have to put on the charm and were anything but unco-operative.

They were themselves, sometimes charming and sometimes not. They chatted, laughed, and, among the older and more knowing, eyed each other up a bit. The usual, in other words. But in the process, they were learning fundamental lessons that these days are not so usual.

The tabloids here may blare out Europe-hating messages, urging readers to shout at passing Germans and the like. But these young clowns, globe walkers and acrobats were seeing that it doesn't matter whether you come from Yorkshire or the former East Germany; Paris or Westphalia.

As young people growing up, they had things in common. They shared likes and dislikes, dreams and fears of the future. They hated conflict and couldn't understand those who did not. They questioned authority but abided by it if it was just. Underlying all these things, they found that once you get to know individuals and work with them, language barriers and national identities recede into the background.

You can bet your bottom deutschmark that these children will grow up with views rather different to those young British people recently surveyed by Gestetner on their attitudes to Europe. When asked what came into their minds when they thought about Germany, nearly 80 per cent of the 800 10 to 16-year-olds interviewed said the Second World War and half of them said Hitler. Germany was also the country most interviewees said they would least like to visit. So much for European awareness.

It is partly because of the recognition of prejudices like these and the need to challenge them that the idea of the international youth circus in Hamm came about. And it is mainly because of the Harry Ree Trust which gave Circus Zanni a Pounds 500 grant, that the Leeds youngsters were able to attend.

The trust, named after the much-loved modern languages teacher and academic, was set up shortly after his death in 1991 by friends and family to fund mainly arts-based exchange projects that bring young Europeans together. It is an attempt to perpetuate the spirit and vision of a man who was "very much a European before his time", says trustee Margaret Maden.

His love of Europe expressed itself, in the words of Sir Richard O'Brien, former director of the Manpower Services Commission and Harry Ree's lifelong friend who chairs the trust, "as an abiding passion, particularly in terms of relations between the Germans and English and the French and Germans. He had no trace of hangover of the past after the war in his relations with the Germans". As well he might have done. Although he started off the war as a pacifist, "he changed his mind", according to Sir Richard, who was an infantry officer and then personal assistant to Field Marshal Montgomery.

As a young teacher of modern languages, Harry Ree joined the Special Operations Executive and worked with the French Resistance. The work was dangerous and on at least one occasion the Germans tried to inveigle a Frenchwoman in the Maquis into betraying him in exchange for her husband's freedom. She refused and both Ree and her husband lived to tell the tale.

Although Ree served heroically, Harriet Gill, his granddaughter who is also a trustee, says that "he felt uncomfortable about any hero label. He never talked about the war and didn't have medals lying around. He preferred to display pictures that kids had drawn for him."

But undoubtedly, the experiences of working undercover and entrusting his fate into the hands of others - and holding responsibility for others' lives - had a great impact on him throughout his life.

After the war, he returned to teaching and became head of Watford Grammar School in 1951. Twelve years later, he became the first professor of education at York University. Then, in 1974, he took the unusual step of choosing to return to classroom teaching, calling it his "demotion". Instead of a prestigious, well-paid option, he went to teach French at Woodberry Down Comprehensive in Hackney, east London, where he remained until 1980. It was a strange thing to do but not out of character given his compassion, his love of classrooms and his desire to be in touch with young people. He was, says Harriet Gill, "a person who had different lives filled with many different people".

When he finally retired, he remained an indefatigable campaigner for what journalist, friend and trustee Anne Corbett calls "education to be as much a civil liberty as a civic right". Among other things, this took the form of founding and leading Towards a New Education Act, following the 1988 Act. If he had been alive for the introduction of the 1993 Education Reform Act, Corbett imagines that "he would have been horrified. He wanted an education service that united the country, not divided it".

If there is a central theme to Harry Ree's life and achievements, perhaps it is that very unity that Anne Corbett talks about. A great networker, often bringing disparate people together in his farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales, he was a great believer in the understanding that comes from people of different cultures working together.

She recalls Ree talking and writing about the concept of bringing young Europeans together through the arts, based on a post-war scheme devised by de Gaulle and Adenauer. The thinking behind it at the most basic level was that, as Corbett puts it, "setting up exchanges between young people, getting them to meet and to see how similar they were, would prevent them from ever going to war against each other again. Today, Harry would think that this kind of project is more important than ever before, seeing how fragile it has all become once again in Europe with a return to jingoism and the wartime stereotypes."

For details about the Harry Ree Trust, or to send donations, contact the trust co 44 Lady Somerset Road, London NW5 1TUn Cover picture: Harry Ree in the post-war film School for Danger, renamed Now It Can Be Told, preserved in the Imperial War Museum archive.

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