Tony Earnshaw: In life the significant moments are when connections are made

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They say you never forget a good teacher, and I remember two with affection: Alan Hardhill and Tony Pearce. One was my English master at grammar school, the other a practitioner of the same subject at FE College.

I hadn’t thought about either man for years until an invitation dropped through the letterbox asking me to be guest speaker at the annual dinner organised by the old boys’ association of my former school. It came as a surprise, for I wasn’t much of a scholar. Not that I was dim, just not interested. I could always find something else to do instead of homework. I liken it to that sudden obsession to tidy one’s desk as a particularly fraught deadline looms ominously. Anything to avoid the inevitable.

Back in 2001 at the Bradford Film Festival Richard Attenborough confessed to me that he was “a bit of a duffer” at school. His glory came later. Academic prowess didn’t come into it.

So in the months since receiving the invitation from the good fellows of the Old Rastrickians I’ve been wracking my brains over what to say. And what it comes down to in the end is snatched moments of time.

I was led to this conclusion by James Stewart, no less, who pinpointed what constituted his allure to the paying public. He was on a talk show and recalled a conversation with a fan. “I liked the way you got on that horse,” said the random stranger. “Which way?” replied Stewart. “Which film?” “Oh, I don’t remember which film,” said the fan, “but the way you got on that horse was superb.”

For Stewart, an Oscar-winner and Hollywood royalty for 40 years, that reaction summed up everything he represented: to the public, to the press, to the film industry and, ultimately, to himself. His life and career as a movie star had been boiled down to its component parts. It was all about moments or, in the case of one fan, one moment. Just one. But in that moment he had made a connection. Life is fleeting. We pass along the road just once and we hope to make a difference along the way. And in the passage of time our memories grow dim with the mind choosing, often arbitrarily, what to retain.

I haven’t thought in any meaningful way about Rastrick Grammar School since I last walked through its doors in the summer of 1983. But in being nudged to recall my times there – and the years since as a writer, broadcaster and author – I thought of Alan Hardhill and the list of books he urged me to read.

There was Shakespeare, Harper Lee, Victor Hugo, HG Wells, “anything by Graham Greene”, Sylvia Plath, Bram Stoker. A mixed bag of style and content. Coriolanus meets Quasimodo by way of Harry Lime. And I read the lot.

Looking back it was a moment that defined my young life. And it’s a moment I’ll recall as I give my speech tonight.