Obituary: John Airs
The Guardian has published an obituary of John
John was born in Edinburgh in 1941. He lost his father, Wilf, navigator on an RAF bomber which was shot down over France in June 1944. John was just three years old and his newly widowed mother, Mary, bravely raised him and his little sister Kate, while also running a school in North Berwick. Through the good offices of the then headmaster, Fr Oswald Eaves — founder of the Air Scouts — he was one of several boys who had lost their fathers who had lost their lives while serving with the RAF. He was packed off, first to Carlekemp and then to Fort Augustus.
The 1955 production of ‘The Mikado’ was distinguished by the Japanese costumes sent from Osaka by Mr Forbes. Two debutants on the stage, John Airs (Katisha) and Brian McCann (Pooh-Bah), were outstanding. The latter’s antics drew tears of laughter from all; the former was also favourably reviewed by Wilfred Taylor in his ‘Scotsman’s Log’ (The Scotsman, 5 July 1955)
The School, however, also had other stimulants for their emotional development: Mr Treadaway’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, for example, on 17 March for the Community and School and on 21 March for invited guests. The most powerful acting in the play was by John Molleson as Macbeth and John Airs as Lady Macbeth.
The 1956 production of ‘The Gondoliers’ was the work of Fr Thomas and Mr Worden. It was notable for the gutsy lead given the male chorus by Mr Treadaway and for the acting of John Airs as the Duke of Plaza-Toro. A reviewer wrote that ‘John Airs, metamorphosed from shrewish harridan to foppish and frog-like aristocratic roué, caracoled about the stage in season and out of season with delightfully spontaneous abandon. His antics in the gavotte were a joy to watch.’
John’s son, Jamie, recalls that ‘
At Edinburgh University he discovered a passion for drama that would remain with him throughout his life. During his English degree, he spent so much time directing and acting in plays that he was called in by the dean one morning. Expecting to receive commendation or praise for his thespian achievements, he was surprised instead to be told he was spending too much time on them and would have to retake the entire year.
He did eventually graduate, and, following a spell in the Dominican Order and a flirtation with the priesthood he changed course completely and trained to be a teacher and soon moved to Liverpool, qualified as a teacher, and took a job in the English department at Quarry Bank School. On his first day, he looked so young that, Bill Pobjoy, who was the headmaster, stopped John walking in via the teachers’ entrance and redirected him to the pupils’ one instead.
Despite looking like, and often positioning himself as one of the kids, he taught there for nearly 30 years and made many friends for life. Those colleagues would be familiar fixtures at dinner parties over the years and he treasured his friendships with them all.
Over the years, mum and dad would regularly bump into people he had once taught, usually while grocery shopping, and many would regale them with tales of what a great teacher dad had been. His legacy at Quarry actually got me out of a fight once… One rowdy night in the Dovedale Towers, a group of lads were dishing out a bit of lager fuelled aggro. One lad in particular was having a go at my perceived lack of local credentials. After a bit of back and forth, I countered that, not only had I gone to the same school as him, but my dad had been a teacher there. “Oh yeah, what was his name?” he asked sceptically. “John Airs” I replied nervously.
“Ahhh Mr. Airs! Bloody hell! He was alright your dad” The tension instantly dissipated, and I probably should have left it there. Instead, perhaps carried away with the relief, I thanked him and told him that my dad quite often bumped into ex-pupils, who told him he’d been an inspirational teacher. He stopped, mid-gulp of lager, looked me straight in the eye and said “He was alright like. I dunno if I’d go that far”. I told Dad next day and he thought it was brilliant, especially that final comeback.
After leaving Quarry Bank, dad began working in Drama education and formed a working partnership with Chris Ball that would lead to a wonderful friendship that extended to include both families.
As a youngster, growing up in Woodlands Road in the 80s would often mean joining mum and dad on protests against apartheid, marching for the miners or delivering leaflets on a Saturday morning. He was quietly helping forge my own political outlook. I often wonder how many other people dad influenced in this way. Last week, I received this voice message from Chris Ross, one of his ex-pupils which went as follows:
Dad was introduced to my Mum, Jane, in 1972, by a mutual friend. They went for a date at the Black Horse and Rainbow on Berry Street and instantly hit it off. Dad was so enamoured with Mum that he popped the question within just a few months. One of the reasons Mum took to John so much was that he was both kind to and interested in my big brother, Rob, who was not quite two years old when they met.
After retirement, John took up something that became a new full-time job of sorts, which was writing to the Guardian. At the last count, he had over a hundred letters published, and his good friend Kevin got this response from the editor of the Guardian letters page when he informed him that dad had died: “John’s life clearly touched many others and his incisive and insightful contributions to our letters pages will be much missed by us and our readers”
For many years John was an educational consultant and honorary research fellow at Liverpool University. In 1995 he co-authored
Taking Time to Act: A Guide to Cross-curricular Drama Research Series; 5 Authors Christopher Ball, John Airs Edition illustrated Publisher: Pearson Education, 1995.
On 6 May 2019 a letter headed ‘Sociology’s value to wider society and a revival in drama education’ from John and two colleagues was published in The Guardian. It pointed out that ‘Last July we wrote that government policies had forced the National Association for the Teaching of Drama (NATD) into hibernation. But since then, and perhaps not coincidentally, there has been a sharp rise in membership and, on 8 June, NATD will be coming out of hibernation, sharing two workshops at the Story Makers Company Festival, Story Rebels: A new kind of hero, taking place at Leeds Beckett University, followed by a full AGM. All teachers, not just drama specialists, will be very welcome.’ Liam Harris (chair), Maggie Hulson, John Airs — National Association for the Teaching of Drama, Liverpool.