Beryl and John: modest inspirers

by | Blog

To celebrate the lives of two inspirational figures in the same week has been a therapeutic diversion from the depressing spectacle of two Lilliputians vying to become British Prime Minister.

One was my old schoolteacher and friend John Forster whose North Yorkshire funeral I attended last week. The other was world champion cyclist Beryl Burton who lived in the next block of flats to my Aunt Gladys and whose daughter, Denise, went to school with my cousin Ken.

John’s life was celebrated in a simple service in a packed Knaresborough church. Heading from there to his wake I spotted in a bookshop near where Beryl spent her later years Jeremy Wilson’s very fine new biography Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete.

John and Beryl were born in 1937 and both were hugely respected in their respective communities. John spent most of his working life in Yorkshire schools. Beryl was little known in Britain outside its cycling community but was revered internationally for her phenomenal, man-beating achievements on road and track over three decades.

Both were modest figures leading quiet family lives and both, in different ways, were models and liberators for many.

In my case John was the English teacher who encouraged me to think of university and the wider world after teenage discouragement at the hands of a previous school head.

At his funeral were many whose confidence as pupils was likewise boosted by his empathy and enthusiasm. They were joined by others fired up for sport and literature in his very active retirement.

Beryl was the woman I saw in my schooldays pedalling around my West Yorkshire home town of Morley

with baby Denise behind her. Little did I know then that her young daughter – in time to become a champion cyclist herself – accompanied her and husband Charlie on 100-mile rides into the Dales and Pennines.

Only after Maxine Peake’s radio and theatre productions did I learn that Beryl had been warned off energetic exercise after chronic childhood illness had kept her away from school for two years.

Wilson’s carefully researched and thoughtful book tells us much more about that and reflects on the coincidence of early trauma with supreme sporting achievement.

John, as a dutiful, inspiring teacher also committed in retirement to the development and enrichment of his community, may never have a biographer. But the difference he made to many lives contrasts with the PR-puffed lives of “celebrities”.

Only in recent years has the remarkable life of Beryl, who died in 1996 after an amateur career battling the sexist prejudices of the cycling authorities, been told to those outside the world of cycling. Peake is to be thanked for largely initiating this interest, first with her radio play Beryl: A Love Story on Two Wheels.

Wilson has greatly added to our understanding by interviewing Charlie Burton, her lifelong support and mechanic, Denise and other members of Beryl’s family, plus many of her cycling rivals and friends.

He also convincingly shows how Beryl’s record-smashing achievements in her low, tight-profile style would be even more impressive riding with today’s bikes and equipment.

She and John, who was married to another Yorkshire-born Beryl, shared other qualities. Beryl said she cycled to win. John’s daughter Sally told the congregation that he hated jogging but loved running. His son Michael told how in a needle tennis match John urged him to play the point.

Beryl was a hard-working, hard-training world champion who never earned a penny for her efforts. When as a youngster I saw her in Morley, she worked on the local rhubarb farm of another high-performing amateur cyclist Nim Carline. Towards the end of her life she gave this TV interview while continuing to stretch and bend picking raspberries, a working routine she claimed help her stay low on the drop handlebars.

John continued playing tennis and golf late into his long and vibrant life. Beryl died on her bike delivering invitations to her 59th birthday party. The memory of their modesty in achievement and their inspirational influence on others lives on.

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