Brian Viner: Let me tell you about Mr Barker

Country Life: 'A man of enormous charisma, kindness and rectitude, Mr Barker was pivotal in the life of the school'
Click to follow

Let me tell you about Mr Barker. Actually, no. Let me first tell you about the village primary school that my youngest child, 10-year-old Jacob, attends. It is a marvellous little school, two miles from us as the crow would fly if the farmer hadn't shot it for bothering his lambs. We would have sent all three of our children there when we arrived in north Herefordshire six years ago, except that it seemed to represent too jarring a contrast with the life we had left behind. Our children had been at a large, multi-racial primary in north London. Here, the only black faces belonged to ewes, looking stupidly over the fence. And there were only 60 pupils, in mixed year groups. We duly sought out another village school, 11 miles away, where we thought the culture shock might be less acute.

When our two older children reached secondary age, however, we decided to move Jacob to the school nearby. This made sense for various reasons, not least because the new head teacher was a woman of extravagant warmth, to whom we knew Jacob would respond. Another of the school's great assets, though we wouldn't know it until after Jacob had started, was Mr Barker, the octogenarian chairman of governors. A man of enormous charisma, kindness and rectitude, Mr Barker was as pivotal in the life of the school as the school was pivotal in the life of Mr Barker. He went in most days to listen to the children reading, or to read to them. He was there to help at every nativity, every fete, every sports day. And in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday he always turned up wearing his service medals, and told the pupils about the Second World War. Their attention was never less than rapt. He had a wonderful way with words, and a wonderful way with children.

I knew from Jacob that Mr Barker had "been in the war" but I didn't know what he had been. Then, a few months ago, Jacob and I watched a preview DVD of a documentary called The Day of the Kamikaze and who should pop up but Mr Barker, recounting what it had been like on the HMS Victorious when kamikaze planes attacked. On the day of transmission he even went on Richard & Judy, and was more natural on their sofa than many a star of stage and screen.

Anyway, until fairly recently Mr Barker was the halest and heartiest of 86-year-olds. But then he suffered a collapsed lung, followed by further complications, and after a few torrid days in Hereford County Hospital he returned home and started making arrangements for his funeral. He feels that he was appallingly treated in hospital, although he will have to forgive me for not detailing his many grievances here, because when Jacob tore open his scrotum in a freak accident last year, the staff at Hereford County played a blinder. Suffice to add how sad it is that a man who has served his country and his community as selflessly as Mr Barker, should, at the death, feel let down.

I use the word "death" cautiously, but it does seem as though Mr Barker is dying. All those pupils whose lives he has so enhanced will be bereft. And yet, as he lies in his front room getting weaker, he draws comfort from the daily visits of posses of children, chosen by their head teacher, who stand at his bedside singing his favourite songs. When he can, he joins in. And it strikes me that, the unfortunate episode at hospital aside, he embodies the old adage that you get back from life what you put into it.

Last week I visited, too, and with almost preternatural eloquence for a sick old man, he gave me chapter and verse of his wartime experiences. He had beguiling anecdotes about the King, "heavily rouged", going aboard Victorious at Scapa Flow, and about Churchill, Montgomery, Mountbatten, Noël Coward and his shipmate Kenneth More. I'd pass them on, but I've run out of space, in more ways than one. This column has lasted almost six years, inspired two pretty successful books, and provoked a lot of correspondence, but this is its last airing. Thanks for reading.

Ray Barker died on Saturday, after this column was written