I'm no saint, says 'fanatic' who saved 150: John Arlidge talks to the retired teacher who hired buses to rescue refugees from Bosnia
Sunday 06 September 1992
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.' '
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