When Paul McHarry started teaching physics at West Buckland in September 1977, in what he insisted on calling (his Head of Department notwithstanding) the Department of Natural Philosophy, he might reasonably have expected to carry on his vocation in the way in which he and his generation had been taught, with some rigour and whenever pupils allowed, humour, humanity and inspiration.
Of the large intake of seven new members of staff that September, which included Rev. Chris Willis, Paul stood out by his gravitas, his impeccable appearance, his dignity and his thoroughness in everything he was asked to do.
To make such an immediate impression speaks volumes about Paul as we young teachers were surrounded by a team of West Buckland stalwarts who had dedicated themselves so selflessly for a decade to saving the school under George Ridding. It was clear from the comments of our older colleagues that they thought Paul a tremendous asset.
His evenings were spent, before and after supper, if not marking or attending to his pastoral duties, in ensuring that whatever experiments were to be conducted during the morrow’s lessons were meticulously arranged, material readied and demonstrations assured. We could not help laughing when he reported their failure, as he sometimes did at the next evening’s supper, in high dudgeon, at what he perceived as the malice or inertia of the equipment and its sheer effrontery in not obliging him in class. His reaction was all the funnier as there was clearly a large element of self-mockery behind the indignation. His irreverent, even sardonic, humour underlay without subverting his principles, adding depth to our perception of him. In a restaurant in France, having ordered ice-cream for desert, he was asked by the waiter, ” ’Ow many balls?” Paul looked at him and drily said, “Scoops!” When a headmaster said to him, “McHarry! I’ve had a good idea!” Paul replied, “Headmaster, that’s two in one week! Perhaps you ought to go and lie down!”
At the same time, there was steel in his approach. He put himself out to ensure that he gave of his best, whatever was asked of him. He expected others to do much the same, to reciprocate even if allowances had to be made for lesser mortals. This applied to pupils and colleagues. He could get genuinely cross with people he thought were backsliding, dishonest or half-hearted. Yet he had the breadth of spirit to live by his own exacting standards and still accept that other folk functioned differently. I sometimes feel that Paul’s might have been a life of some frustration where he yearned to use his gifts to make a difference and found himself thwarted by others’ indifference or political correctness which limited his options.
It was West Buckland’s great loss that when Oliver Shaw found another post, Paul had, shortly before, accepted a post at a school in Yorkshire. He found himself unable to go back on the principle of his decision despite a desire to stay, and so left WB in July 1982. It says a lot about his character that his new school fell so far short of his standards that he handed in his notice after two weeks and moved to Barnard Castle, the other surviving Brereton School, where he remained for the rest of his career. It also had the advantage of being closer to his beloved family. Judging by the eulogy of a Barnard Castle colleague at Paul’s funeral, he was very clearly held in superlative esteem there, as at West Buckland.
Paul was a very private man in many ways; his Christian faith was to be followed quietly, not worn on his sleeve, even though it was sorely tested by the trials of his final illness. His lifelong interest in speedway racing will come as a complete surprise to many who thought they knew him, as will his authorship, under a nom de plume, of seven novels dealing with the sport, which he also published himself.
After his retirement, he spent much of the short time left to him caring for his beloved mother, Audrey, until her death. It was not many months later that he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a debilitating cancer, which eventually resulted in heart failure in March 2017. He had said how put out he was to be succumbing to the same illness “as that wretched republican Martin McGuinness.”
It seems unfair that, at a mere 62 years Paul should be called away from us; even more unfair that we have been deprived of such a genuine, caring, principled, honest friend. All who knew him must feel gratitude that his life touched theirs. R.I.P.
Paul Berry (77-01S)