Fred lives on the edge of Bradford in a house which looks like it has never left the 1960s. His hallway overflows with fishing paraphernalia, whilst his attic houses a fully functioning dark room: bottles, trays and developing tanks, all meticulously organised into a careful workflow.
The real joy however is Fred's garden. He told us once that his mother helped him fall in love with gardening at the age of five. His garden therefore is a testament to eighty years of gardening knowledge and understanding: a labyrinthine maze of potatoes and carrots, towering sweetcorn, gnarled apple and pear trees, raspberry canes, ripe tomatoes, and juicy strawberries. My daughter loves exploring there in the summer, and so do I.
Before she became a vicar, my wife had been a primary school teacher, and of course I was in my first year of running a PGCE course. Our discussion that day therefore turned quite quickly to teaching. And so it was that we ended up talking about Fred's "remedial class" over a mid-week discount carvery at the local pub. This is a story about that meal.
Fred is clearly keen to discuss his time as a teacher, and it is obvious that he still takes a lot of pleasure and professional pride in his work. I, on the other hand, am much less keen on the topic of conversation. My inner historian is always looking out for the educational prejudices to emerge, especially from someone who taught during the progressive, Piaget-inspired 60s and 70s. As the conversation turns to how Fred was given the task of getting his "remedial" class reading, I am in a somewhat sceptical frame of mind.
The school Fred worked in was a rough and ready Bradford Middle School; the boys tough and often uninterested, and the reputation of this class was especially fierce. However Fred tells us that he reckoned that their bluster and refusal to engage with English lessons, and with reading especially, was connected to something else.
"Nothing I could do," he explains picking up his half of mild, "could persuade these kids to pick up a book and read. And the head just wanted me to buy a load more books, as if that would solve the problem. It was no good having more books, they already had them and wouldn't read them."
As he digs into his roast potatoes, he drops into a little aside. Once, in the early days, he tells us, he set up a reading corner at one side of the classroom and the children wouldn't even go near it; they skirted around the books like there was some sort of invisible barrier there. "I realised that they didn't hate books," he says "they were scared of them." This he says was his "light-bulb moment."
He has stopped eating his food now, his beef and Yorkshires sit untouched on the plate, he is too deeply engaged in his story. "The head thought I'd gone mad!" He explains, as he tells us how he took all the books out of his classroom an replaced them with alphabet and basic word cards he knocked up in his workshop.
"I took every book out of that class and locked them in cupboards. The only books in there were on my desk."
Each day he would get the boys to do a little practice of the key words and vocabulary, ten minutes here, ten minutes there. He then goes on to tell us that he stopped forcing the boys to bring (or refuse to bring) a reading book with them each day. Instead, he brought in his own books and stories to read to them; everything from football scores to ghost stories, newspapers to novels.
At this point I am deep within my own prejudices. A little part of my brain says "typical 60s approach to teaching - if they can't do it, don't bother. This is just writing off a group of kids completely." There is some silence as we tackle our meals. In my head I am already judging this story and this man as a teacher. "All sounds a bit progressive" I think as I wonder how I might tackle the issue of soft prejudice with our octogenarian companion. The discussion goes elsewhere.
Before long, my wife and I have admitted defeat at the mound of food in front of us. We sit back and peruse the dessert menus which a waitress has brought over. Fred meanwhile is stoically trenching on. Cutting each piece of beef, each stem of broccoli to just the right size before loading his fork. I sit and watch, and wait.
Just when it seems Fred has forgotten about his story, he picks it up again.
"So do you know what happened with those boys who were scared of reading?" He asks.
"No. How did they get on?" I reply. "Did you ever get them to read some proper books?"
I wonder if he detects the tone in that question "proper books". If he does, he doesn't rise to it, but continues with the tale. Three months into his "no books" regime, Fred explains how he began to change his approach. Increasingly he would read quietly whilst the class were working, smiling at a good story, making interested noises. Increasingly the students would ask "What's so funny sir?" Or "What you reading sir?"
"I knew I had them then you see" he explains. "I was getting them to see that you could enjoy books. I wanted them to know that they were worth reading, worth spending time with."
The boys were increasingly enjoying being read to, and now seemed more interested, but despite all of this, he still couldn't get the children to pick up a book themselves. He tells us that he tried again to put books in a reading corner, but the same force-field effect seemed to occur. So he says that he continued with the flash cards and the words builders and the class reading, and the modelled reading. Meanwhile I continue to muse on the 'soft bigotry' of the approach.
The waitress is now bustling to and fro, replacing our plates with steaming bowls of sticky toffee pudding. Fred has declined the pudding, opting instead to finish off the last of his main meal. As the waitress busies herself, the tone of his story changes. Up until this point, Fred has sympathised with the difficulties the boys faced with reading, he has explained the allowances and modifications he made to guide them towards enjoying books.
"Of course," he says, around a mouthful of Yorkshire pudding, "they had to be pushed out of the nest eventually. One day, about May time, I asked one of the boys to get the reading books" he continues. Now he drops into a dialogue, taking on the parts of both himself and the boys in the class
"Here Jenkins, go and get that pile of reading books from the store cupboard for me"
"I aren't reading a book, sir!"
"I'm not asking you to, just go and get them and bring them here."
Despite his protestations, Fred tells us that he made made Jenkins collect the pile of books from the cupboard where they have been locked away for months.
"He carried them back like some sort of nuclear device." Fred chuckles "Carefully. At arms' length."
Fred explains how, after the books have been gingerly deposited, he picked one up and, with the boy still stood there, waiting to be dismissed, opened it and began reading through. Fred explains that some moments pass as he pores over the pages. Suddenly, Fred declares, the boy pipes up in his broad Bradford accent, "Bloody hell! I can read some of those words, sir."
Fred drops back into his mock dialogue.
"Oh really? Which ones can you read?"
"This one here, and this one." Over the next few minutes Fred tells us that the boy reads some of the book to his teacher as the rest of the class slowly start to pay attention and look on.
"By the end of the day," Fred says, "we'd read that book. The whole class. They'd finally got over their fear of words."
Fred is now beaming as he tells us how he was able to introduce books back into the class from that point. By the end of the year, he had achieved seemingly impossible and had this "remedial" class reading for knowledge and, more importantly, for pleasure. The pride he feels here is palpable, and even fifty years on I feel some of it too. This was clearly a turning point for some of those boys, and it all started from an approach with which I might have had very little truck.
We settle the bill (he paid incidentally) and I leave the pub, somewhat humbled, and definitely a little wiser.