Norman West by Simon Weston

8th January 2016 at 00:00
The Falklands veteran and charity campaigner recalls a history teacher who taught him how to make sense out of the chaos of war

I went to Lewis Boys’ School in Pengam, Glamorgan, in the early 70s, right when it switched from a grammar to a comprehensive, which is the worst thing they ever did in Wales, as far as I’m concerned. I understand there’s an argument to say that you shouldn’t have selective education, but I think that’s a load of cobblers, to be honest with you. But anyway, it was a seismic change in the school’s direction and it caused a lot of violence. It was a tough place at times. There were gangs and their violence was met at my school with the cane, the slipper and the gym shoe. Corporal punishment was endemic and all this violence turned me right off education – strange, I guess, that I went on to join the military.

The only lessons I really attended were metalwork and, most importantly, history. That was down to my history teacher, Norman West. His passion for his subject was superb. I’m affected by anyone who is truly passionate about what they do. I have to be able to subscribe to a person’s beliefs to be able to get on board, and that stems way back to being a student. The thing about history that people tend to forget is that it covers everything – literally everything. Economics, war and politics are the obvious ones, but it encompasses much more. It covers achievement, innovation, bravery, ingenuity, perseverance. It shows us where we’ve been and where we could be heading.

And his passion for history stoked the flames of my passion for the subject. He raised the curiosity and intrigue in me and he also raised my level of understanding. And he did it in technicolour. He brought it to life. He used to march around the classroom waving his hand in the air: “And another thing about the politics of war!” I mean, how on Earth do you make the politics of war interesting to kids? Nevertheless, he managed it, and he’s the reason that I talk on the topics I do in the manner that I talk about them.

He explained how Nato was formed, where the United Nations came from, what the ideas were that surrounded these groups and why some of them were toothless. He would talk about topics off-curriculum even though they weren’t part of the question that would be asked, because it was important subtext around a topic. It was vital stuff that offered understanding. And then he went on to teach us that for every decision made in history, there could be a direct and indirect consequence.

And all this, combined, gave me a great understanding of logic – which came in very useful when I joined the military. It helped me to make sense out of mayhem. His lessons gave me an understanding of how to direct my thoughts when all around me would start to fall apart. That logical thinking allowed me, in the toughest times, to know that what was happening then wouldn’t be the case in five years’ time, or even in five weeks’ time. What was happening in the present was all part of a process; history shows that things don’t improve overnight.

His history lessons taught me to be patient. They taught me that positive outcomes take hard work and time.

About five years ago, I was doing a talk in a wonderful old theatre on the south coast. When I was finished, a lady came up to me and said, “A Mr Norman West is here and he’d love to come and say hello, but he’s unsure if you’d be happy to meet him.”

Needless to say, I was only too happy to see him. “Sir,” I said, “all I can say to you is thank you.” He looked at me with total bemusement. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for my love of history.”

I said it to him personally then, and I’m saying it to him publicly now.

Simon Weston OBE was talking to Tom Cullen. Simon is touring the UK until 9 April with his inspirational My Life, My Story, his no-holds-barred recollection of the Falklands conflict and his life since, as a happy and contented father, grandfather and national treasure. Visit mylife-mystory.co.uk for dates

A soldier’s life

Simon Weston

Born 8 August 1961, Caerphilly, South Wales

Education Lewis Boys’ School, Pengam, Glamorgan

Career A veteran of the British Army, he suffered severe burns when the RFA Sir Galahad landing ship was bombed during the Falklands War, killing 22 of his platoon of 30. He has since been heavily engaged in a number of charities and political campaigns

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