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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.)