The extraordinary Jim Smith, who taught English and Latin at the former Jesuit-run Campion House College in Osterley, west London, has died. There are many priests and laymen around the country and overseas who were inspired and nurtured by Jim, and who will never forget his unique character.
Jim's funeral will be held at 11 am on Wednesday March 21 at St Vincent's Church, Osterley.
I was one of his students in the early 1980s, and I wrote affectionately about him in my memoir The Long Road out of Town.
Most of us at certain times in our lives meet people who have a profound impact on us. Sometimes they direct us down a road we might not have taken had it not been for their encouragement and insight. It's usually much later that we realise how significant such an encounter was, and we wonder how different our lives might have been if we hadn't met. I'm pretty sure my life would not have taken the route it eventually did had it not been for Jim Smith.
Jim, or Mr Smith as we respectfully called him, taught English and Latin at Campion House. He'd joined the staff in the 1950s after Oxford and working in public relations for ICI. He was born to teach. He'd arrive at the college in an old Rover, with his wife Anne who taught English, carrying a bulging brown leather briefcase and, with his crooked tie, looking as if he had left the house in a hurry. Jim would talk about Paradise Lost one minute, his glasses pushed up on to his forehead, and then break off in mid-sentence and, gesticulating, say something like, "Have you read that article in the Spectator about Shakespeare?" or "Have you read The Waste Land?" We would all shake our heads. "Oh, you must read it. It's fantastic!" he would enthuse.
I was spellbound by Jim and lapped up his every word, wondering how someone could know so much about books and writers. He seemed to have read everything. It wasn't just the fact that he had so much knowledge; it was more because he possessed the rare gift of being able to communicate it in a way that fired your imagination and made you want to go straight to the library to get hold of a copy of whatever it was he'd just been talking about. Jim opened up a new and fascinating world for me, something that none of my English teachers at school had ever done. Studying Macbeth at school had seemed boring and irrelevant to my life, but with Jim the play sprang to life in a way I hadn't thought possible.
One day he came to my desk and handed me back a short story I'd written about the time I worked with Mr Ballington, the chimney sweep. "That's great!" he said, "You came up with some lovely turns of phrase. You've a real flair for language."
"I've always liked writing," I said, surprised at his praise.
"Well, keep it up," he said beaming and patting my shoulder. "You've got talent."
No one had ever said this to me before. I'd always thought talent to be something that other people possessed but not me. That night in my room I lay awake, thinking about his words and wondering if I really was good at writing. I can see now that somewhere inside me a seed had been planted, or maybe it had died and Jim had just given it life again.
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