My Geography Teacher Jammed With George Harrison—A True Story

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It’s 1991. The 1st Gulf War is about to begin, and I’m watching the bombs explode over Baghdad on my tiny black & white TV.

A few months later, on the same TV, I watch Yakov Tolstiko win the London Marathon. It’s a significant event because he’s the first Soviet athlete to do this. And the last. By the end of the year, the USSR will cease to exist.

Not a great year to be a communist. But a great year to be me. It’s the last year of school. A school I’ve spent the last eleven years at — almost my entire life. And in July, it’ll be over. An occasion as monumental for me as it will be for Yakov Tolstiko when he arrives Back in the USSR after winning his medal.

First though, I’ve got to pass my exams. Which is a problem, because I’m more interested in girls and booze than in hanging valleys.

In case you’ve forgotten: Hanging valleys are formed when a large glacier smashes through a valley cutting the ‘legs’ off the older valleys, leaving them ‘hanging’ once the glaciers have melted. Like below.

— OK, Phil. Thanks for the geography lesson. But what’s this to do with George Harrison?

I’m coming to that. But first, let’s talk about John Croft.

— Who the hell is John Croft?

John Croft, or Crofty, was my geography teacher who on Saturday nights at the sixth form bar used to knock out a few George Formby songs on his banjo ukulele. I was more into Nirvana, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pearl Jam at the time. But as Crofty was one of the more likeable teachers at the school, it was always good to hear him play.

He was also a close friend of George Harrison.

— I’m sorry?

That’s grabbed your attention, hasn’t it?

You see, we all thought Crofty was just another jobbing teacher like the rest of them. Sitting around in smoky staffrooms drinking endless mugs of weak tea. Or in The Oak pub later knocking back pints of mild to make the evenings go quicker.

Little did we know that the guy who taught us hanging valleys on a Tuesday afternoon, also hung out with one of the Beatles.

George Harrison had always had a keen interest in George Formby and the banjo ukulele (above). He owned one growing up, and wanted to reignite his passion for the instrument.

What better person to get advice from than the President of the George Formby Society and well-known banjo ukulele aficionado: John Croft.

Harrison phones Crofty up out of the blue, and tells him he needs some advice on banjo ukuleles, as he wants to start playing them again. They arrange to meet up, and get on well. Their common interest in the popular wartime entertainer and the instrument, extinguishes any doubts John has about meeting such a musical luminary. I mean, after all, this was a living Beatle.

For the next eleven years, until George’s sad death in 2001, they remained close friends. Not only did Crofty help him build up his ukulele collection, but helped him with his playing technique.

Can you imagine that? My old geography teacher giving music lessons to one of the most famous musicians on the planet?

At the time, as well as studying, I also sang. I remember singing April Come She Will by Paul Simon in front of the entire school with Goichi Hirata accompanying me on guitar. It was a pretty nerve-racking experience. In fact, now I think about it, it was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done.

But imagine, if I’d known that down the road was George Harrison. Crofty could have invited him up. I might have really belted out April Come She Will (if that’s possible). Instead of the rather frail and feeble performance I gave that afternoon.

As it was, Crofty kept the whole thing secret for obvious reasons. He didn’t want the press descending on his house. George was a very private man, and John respected that. Which was why no one knew until much later.

Saying that, there had been rumours. Some say they’d seen George Harrison in town. Another, was that Eric Clapton owned a pub nearby where there were wild parties. The most outlandish one was that Harrison was seen driving Crofty in his new F1 McLaren sports car up the Tanet Valley in North Wales.

(Ah, sorry, that’s actually true.)

It’s a good story, isn’t it? And even though I didn’t feature in it, I feel like I was there in spirit. While Crofty played his ukulele with George Harrison down the road from our school, I was singing songs — maybe even the odd Beatles song — with Goichi Hirata. There’s a nice synergy about it. And when I think about it, it feels like a tiny tiny part of me knew George as well.

You can read more about this story on John Croft’s site The Ukulele Man.

This story originally appeared on Medium on 26 February 2022. You can read more stories on my Medium page. Or you could consider signing up to become a Medium member. It’s $5 a month, giving you unlimited access to my stories and millions of others on Medium. If you sign up via this link, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Great. Thanks!

(Photo Credits: George Harrison: David Hume Kennerly/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons. Hanging Valley: Pseudopanax/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons. George Formby: Puttnam L A (Lt)/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons.)


For Richer or Poorer—What Is Wealth?

I don’t know many wealthy people. But I know one. An old friend of mine, who after university, didn’t bum about like me, but got a job.

I met up with him a few weeks ago, and we started talking about money and wealth and what it meant — if anything. As a way of quantifying our progress since we left university almost twenty-five years ago, we totted up all the money we had in the entire world.

It was a bit of fun, we were a bit drunk, but the results were very telling, and quite surprising. My friend has a house worth £800k, has investments worth £300k, plus a steady job earning him £150k a year.

‘So you’re a millionaire,’ I commented. ‘Congrats, you’ve made it!’

He stared at me in disbelief. ‘You’ve no idea, Phil, have you? You’re probably richer than me.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I said, quaffing my beer. ‘I work on a farm in Normandy, for God’s sake, and earn €19k a year. I don’t own any property, and except for my savings, have no investments whatsoever. Compared to you, I’m a pauper.’

He didn’t see it like that, though, and told me that despite his big salary, come the end of the month, he probably has less money than me. In fact, by the time he’s paid his mortgage, his two cars (BMW & Mercedes), utility bills, food, petrol, clothes, nights out, booze, holidays, trips for the kids, etc., there’s barely enough to feed the dog.

I didn’t believe him. My friend has always been prone to exaggeration, but this was silly. And yet, he insisted it was true. Even his wife backed him up.

‘Even after my wage,’ she declared. ‘We still struggle.’

I was reeling. Struggle is not a word I’ve ever associated with my friend. I have other friends who struggle, but not him. I thought my old university flatmate had got it sorted: rich and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Turns out, he can’t even feed his dog.

‘So, what do you do for money at the end of the month?’ I asked. ‘Beg?’

‘Not quite, but close,’ he admitted. ‘We borrow. Take out loans, or get another credit card. Move money around.’

I felt cold. Is this how people live these days? On a financial precipice, playing one credit card company off against another, just to pay some bills. If they do, this monthly digital financial hustle seems exhausting. Harder than actually working. Or perhaps I’ve been living in rural France too long, and have lost touch with the reality of 21st century England.

‘I could lend you some?’ I offered, half joking,

I could tell he was considering it, but laughed it off.

‘Why not?’ I insisted. ‘I have money in the bank.’

‘Really?’ they both answered in unison.

I wondered what had happened to my friend. He was no fool at college and had always got much better grades than me and had worked hard to get where he was. And yet, he seemed to be squandering it on £5k TV sets when he couldn’t even afford to feed the dog. It seemed absurd.

My friend freely admits he sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and starts work, he’s so worried about losing his job. It’s not that he’s on the verge of being sacked, his position is quite safe, it’s just that if it happened, it would be a catastrophe. As a result, he’s always tired, doesn’t eat well, and by his own admission, is overweight.

He’s always been a bit of a spender. At university, he was always the one to get the rounds in down the pub. Always the one to buy everyone shots of tequila at closing time. And always the first to run out of money.

He often accused me of being tight. Arguing that money was there to spend, not hold onto like a teddy bear.

‘I’m not tight,’ I would argue. ‘I just don’t like spending money. There’s a difference.’

This subtle difference has shaped our lives, and will probably shape our futures. I doubt either one of us is going to be rich (I mean mega rich), but if one of us ends up poor, it won’t be me, that’s for sure.

After the stay with my friend, I concluded there were two types of wealth:

— Pure wealth

— Perceived wealth

The first one is money in the bank. This is me, albeit on a very minor level. The second one is my friend: lots of shiny whistles and bells (and cars), but when you look in the vault, there’s nothing there except dust.

There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, I don’t really care. But next time you think someone is richer or wealthier than you, and before you start to feel bad about yourself, go and have a look to see what their dog has got in its bowl. It might surprise you.

This article was originally published on Medium on 25/01/22—click here

(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)