I'm no saint, says 'fanatic' who saved 150: John Arlidge talks to the retired teacher who hired buses to rescue refugees from Bosnia

GERALD SMITH justifies war, votes Tory and sees himself as a Norman Wisdom. The Northampton headmaster who hired buses to rescue 150 Bosnian refugees and bring them back to the east Midlands insists he is no saint. 'No, no, I am a Smith,' he says. 'Saints are so boring.'

Local people say the 52-year-old former stagehand, who carries a rosary in his pocket and sports velvet jackets and pink waistcoats, is a 'weirdo'.

Sitting at a desk covered with ping-pong balls, screw drivers and sticky buns, with his fez, Black Beauty video and cuddly blue elephant to hand, he concedes: 'I am a little eccentric. I'm like Norman Wisdom. He meant well, but all sorts of odd things happened. I can be a fanatic when I believe something has to be done.'

This determination took him 1,000 miles across five countries to the Austrian-Slovenian border to find Muslims, Serbs and Croats fleeing the war in the former Yugoslavia. It stems, he says, from his experience of failure. He was born the son of a bricklayer as the Second World War broke out and his early schooling was badly disrupted by the Luftwaffe.

At a secondary modern in Mitcham, south London, he was nicknamed 'Whiffy' and bullied because he was 'weak and puny with 'piggy' glasses'. He left with no qualifications and began work at 15 as a postboy at the BBC before becoming a stagehand.

Two years later, he had to leave art college because he ran out of money. After several months out of work, 'in despair, almost giving up', he began studying again and at 21 passed his first examination - O-level English language. Six years later he qualified as a teacher.

'I have suffered hindrance,' he says. 'I know what it is like to be put down, held back, to fail, to be jobless and treated with contempt, without hope. I learnt that if you want to do something, you have to struggle to do it yourself.'

At St Mary's Catholic School in Northampton, his second post, he turned towards Catholicism. 'I loved the respect they showed for life. Life is not ours to take away.' He is, he says, Anglo-Catholic.

He and his wife Gillian have four children, all educated at the 190-pupil St Peter's Independent School in Lingswood Park, which Mr Smith started in hired church buildings in 1979, with an initial sum of pounds 1.

He says that his memory of suffering meant racial and religious division 'sickened' him. Close relationships with local Muslims led him to campaign for better understanding of Islam, meeting a senior imam to try to ease tensions over the Rushdie affair.

Pictures of a mortar attack on Muslim women at a funeral in Sarajevo spurred him to intervene in the Yugoslav conflict.

'I detest bullying and that was cowardly, tyrannical and wicked. I stood up in fury. I felt it was unprincipled to stand and watch. It was a European problem, our problem. By not helping we risked losing our sense of honour, the most important thing a person, a nation has.'

He is not a pacifist - 'I believe in the just war' - and he refuses to blame any group for the Balkan conflict, citing instead 'cultural misunderstanding'.

Although the refugees are 'still suffering, emotionally shattered', he says he is not depressed. 'On the bus from Slovenia I saw a baby playing. The light from the plain fell on his face and I thought: 'Always new life. That's the new Bosnia.' '

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all