James Strachan

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Brian Turner's moustache could have been a problem, but he had a habit of licking it so it was often pasted to his upper lip. It meant I could read him

I was born severely deaf. The sliver of hearing that I had when I was young I have now lost, but it meant that I was able to go to a mainstream rather than a special school.

I used to say that the three most important women in my life were my mother, my speech therapist and my partner, Tessa Blackstone. These days I would add my palantypist. She uses wonderful speech-to-text technology, so that at a board meeting with 20 people I can have a laptop in front of me and see everything that is being said. My mother had the deepest "bedroom voice" in London, a voice that resonated - still does - and that was very helpful to me in terms of learning how to speak.

When I went to King's, a boarding school, I was 12. My speech was more slurred than it is now, sounding a bit as if I'd had a whisky before breakfast. A lot of the other boys mocked me for it and I hated that. I wrote to my mother saying: "You've got to do two things for me. Find me the best speech therapist in the world and please send my housemaster a cheque for my first judo lesson, which starts next week." The judo had an immediate effect; the speech therapist took longer.

Rosemary McCall was an expert on speech and lip-reading and I saw her in the holidays. She gave me a mirror and I had to practise endlessly, speaking and mouthing each letter of the alphabet. With luck and persistence it worked. She was old school; polite but firm, but she gave me confidence. It's all about narrowing the guesswork because research shows that even the best lip-reader in the world can only get 30 per cent from the lips. The rest is context and body language.

In the sixth form I had an economics teacher called Brian Turner. He was in his late twenties and he'd been a history scholar at Cambridge at the same time as Simon Schama. He had an insatiable curiosity about life which was infectious. He had a moustache, which could have been a big problem for me, but he had a habit of licking it so it was often pasted to his upper lip and that way I could read him. Had it been bushy, my life might have been different! Each year he wanted one of his students to win an award to Cambridge. And that's what he helped me do. I can still remember my essays with his voluminous markings up the sides, all over the back and along the top.

At Cambridge, one man made a big impression: George Steiner, who is a highly eclectic gadfly of an intellectual, able to pull together the most disparate aspects of European literature, politics and history. My other big influence at Cambridge was the Arts cinema, where I could watch foreign films to my heart's content, all importantly with subtitles. I felt wonderfully equal to the person in the next seat and became a complete cineaste.

When I left university I wanted to make documentary films so I went to night classes in TV production. I had no money whatsoever and decided to make some, so I became a banker for 14 years, latterly as managing director of Merrill Lynch in London. When I had enough financial independence I switched to studying photography at art school. My visual sense is very strong because of my deafness and I became a photographer specialising in travel.

During that period I met somebody at a dinner party who said: "You're that deaf man, aren't you? Why aren't you involved with the RNID?" I said I had been a volunteer straight after Cambridge and thought it was a dreadful organisation. She said: "Well, I am chair! You should join us." I joined the board as a voluntary trustee and now I'm the chairman. Lord Ashley, RNID's president, is a friend and we often see how people have outdated and negative preconceptions about deafness. It makes me ever more determined to prove myself, to show what you can do, not what you can't.

James Strachan, chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, was talking to Sarah Bayliss


1953 Born in London

1965 Attends King's school, Canterbury

1972-75 Christ's College, Cambridge

1976-89 Works in the City at Chase Manhattan before becoming managing director of Merrill Lynch

1989-90 Postgraduate photojournalism course at London College of Printing

1990-97 Photographer and writer

1997-2002 Chief executive, RNID; boards of Ofgem (energy regulator), National Lottery Community Fund, Disability Rights Commission, Save the Children

2002-06 Chairman, Audit Commission

Spring 2006 Chairman, RNID; boards of Legal and General and Somerset House; Visiting fellow at LSE and patron of National College of School Leadership

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