Mr Ralph by Adrian Chiles

29th November 2013 at 00:00
The television presenter owes a lot to his former English teacher: his love of literature, his passion for jazz piano and, above all, his mental resilience

I was lucky to have had a number of good teachers, but my favourite was Mr Ralph, who taught English at Haybridge High School in Hagley in the West Midlands.

It's always difficult to age your teachers, because when you're in your teens, everyone seems ancient. My old history teacher, Mr Corbett, recently asked me to speak at the school he leads. When I got the invitation, I thought: "Blimey, is he still alive?" It turns out that he's hardly any older than me. I've caught him up.

I know that Mr Ralph retired recently. So that means he was much younger than I am now when he was teaching me in the early 1980s. Frightening.

He taught English with as much passion and enthusiasm as you could have wished. It was the only subject I had a flair for. It was certainly the only subject I thought of doing at university, but I regret now that I chose it.

As an undergraduate, I found my English course an exercise in pointless drudgery. Instead of revelling in a novel, play or poem while Mr Ralph paced the room, bursting with delight at the text before us, I found myself trying to read every novel Thomas Hardy ever wrote in two weeks flat. It's only been very recently, 30 years on, that I have rediscovered the love of fiction I had back at Haybridge.

Mr Ralph challenged our assumptions. I wouldn't presume to know what his politics were, but I remember saying something rather glib about Communism once, which he pulled me up on. My mum is from Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia, and I'd probably just been back there. I said something to the effect of everyone being as miserable as everyone else in those regimes. He shot me a quietly disappointed look. I don't think he disagreed with me necessarily; he just thought we should be above parroting the Thatcherite rhetoric of the day.

What I really loved Mr Ralph for was his passion for music, specifically jazz - and, more specifically, the great American jazz pianist Bill Evans. Mr Ralph was some pianist himself and we had a little trio going for a while. I played double bass and my friend Neil Sprason was on drums.

We played at a school concert once and I sang a Duke Ellington number as well as playing the bass. It seemed to go down really well. Then, as I was leaving, a posh woman smiled at me and said: "Well, you gave them all a good laugh, anyway."

I was mortified. That night, I gave Mr Ralph a lift home - I was in the sixth form by then - and he urged me not to take it to heart; to understand that whatever I went on to do, people would sometimes laugh and sneer and say hurtful things, and I had to deal with it.

How right he was. Many times, when I've been getting it in the neck about something, I've remembered his words.

I've only seen Mr Ralph once or twice since school. When I started presenting the BBC business television programme Working Lunch, I was asked back to school for speech day. Mr Ralph was there and it was by some distance the proudest night of my life. I'll look him up when I'm next at my mum and dad's.

In the meantime, I'm left with my (rediscovered) love of fiction, an enduring passion for the piano of Bill Evans and a certain mental toughness, all of which I owe in no small part to my former English teacher.

Edited by Kate Bohdanowicz. Adrian Chiles is an ambassador for international aid agency Cafod and is currently supporting its ethical gifts range, World Gifts. For more information, visit www.cafod.org.ukworldgifts

FOOTBALL FOCUS

Adrian Chiles

Born: 21 March 1967, Hagley, West Midlands, England

Education: Haybridge High School, Hagley; Westfield College, University of London

Career: Television and radio presenter. Currently fronting ITV Sport's football coverage.

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