Dr Paul Doherty commands respect: he has that reverential aura that when he enters the room, even the most raucous people shut up. Dr Doherty, an award winning author and historian, has published 80 novels and is known under the pseudonyms Paul Harding, C.L. Grace and Vanessa Alexander. Most importantly, though, he has been the headmaster of Trinity Catholic High School in Woodford Green, Essex, for 30 years.
His secretary calls me into his office and, upon entering the room, I am met with a pair of analyzing eyes and a half-smile. He greets me in his husky voice: “Hello Omar”.
Woodford Green — a fairly affluent and calm suburb in North East London — has witnessed two shootings in recent weeks. What does he make of it all?
“The area is definitely changing. I haven’t got stats, but aren’t guns becoming more common? Much of violence in London is gang related – well that’s the message we’re getting from police. I think much of the gang culture is related to drugs.” He backtracks: “I’m not too sure about drugs [hard drugs], actually. From what I can gather, the real drug is alcohol.”
Having authored a myriad of books while simultaneously running a school, he must have a secret. “I was given a very firm grounding in history. I trained in Medieval History, Theology, Greek and Roman History. I was a voracious reader. I was a massive depository of ideas.”
What sort of ideas? “I’ll give you an example. I studied Alexander the Great. We, in the west, think he is marvelous. In Persia they think he is awful – they spit at his name. The more I researched, I found out he destroyed their sacred books and fire. I found out he was a killer!
“Then I found out he died a rather mysterious death in Babylon. His body didn’t actually decompose straight away.Then I thought: was he poisoned or did he take too much arsenic? One of the effects of arsenic is your body doesn’t decompose. So I wrote a book about it all.”
Having attended Trinity myself during sixth form, I remember a few inconspicuous students telling me how much they despise Mass (a Eucharistic assembly). It’s “bloody boring” one student said. I remember another student at the school saying “oh for f*** sake” when he found out they had Mass on that day.
I gulp and bravely ask: Isn’t it time the school, perhaps, jazzed it up a bit? Dr Doherty is silent for a few seconds and then responds: “If they find it onerous or boring all I can say is that’s true of many things in life. I find it boring. I don’t like going to Mass sometimes.”
“You can jazz it up, but what can we do? We are competing with the bite size culture: the Internet, Facebook, Twitter. I think we are losing – on a superficial level we have lost.“
Dr Doherty trained as a priest for three years and anyone who knows him describes him as a ‘man of God.’ Does he think the children in his school have become less religious over the years? “No. I would say slightly more religious – particularly among younger ones. We still have problem with people leaving their faith when they reach 14-15. The debate in society [does God exist] doesn’t help. People see religion as trouble so it’s best to have nothing to do with it.”
He then somehow seamlessly moves on to the topic of religious fundamentalism. “It’s very easy to pick up a sword in the name of Christianity, Islam or Hindi.” Hindi? It’s Hinduism! But I dare not interrupt well he’s in full flow. “Lets say all religions disappeared. We would still find some other cause to have a go at each other.” There, however, I can’t argue.