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Graham Hobster - Out of Africa!

Posted Sunday, July 1, 2007

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Out of Africa - Graham Hobster

Being arrested in Kampala as a neo-colonialist spy and Zionist infiltrator by Idi Amin’s army following the coup d’etat in Uganda in 1971, did not diminish former teacher, author and International freelance photographer Graham Hobster’s love of Africa.

`Recently returned `out of Africa' to his home village of Old Whittington'

In fact, following his retirement from teaching at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School Ashbourne in August 2002, the former head teacher went back, this time to Malawi as a Teacher Trainer with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and has recently returned out of Africa to his `home’ village of Old Whittington in Chesterfield.

But not for long…..with his illustrated book `Medieval Castle Ruins of England & Wales’ currently on sale, and his second book, `Medieval Abbeys of England &Wales’ almost ready for publication, globetrotting Graham is leaving shortly for a break in France - following which he plans to visit and capture images of Antarctica and Cambodia.

So I took the opportunity to catch up with him for an interview in transit, - almost in-between airports - and learned that the old saying, `Derbyshire born and Derbyshire bred, strong in’t arm and weak in’t head’ was never further from the truth than in Graham Hobster’s case!

The Chesterfield Grammar School Old Boy, who is a former Chairman of Ashbourne Round Table, has more than fulfilled his academic potential during an exemplary teaching career spanning four decades, and is an extremely accomplished gentleman - with perhaps more strings to his bow than the entire London Philharmonic Orchestra!

However, although he was Derbyshire bred, Graham was born across the border in South Yorkshire in 1946, moving to live at Old Whittington before his first birthday.

He was educated at Mary Swanwick Primary School and then at Chesterfield Grammar School, and it was here that his ambition to become a teacher and his love of photography originated. He said:

“As a student in the Science 6th Form I was invited to assist with Science practical lessons to lower school pupils and enjoyed the experience so much that it decided my future career”.

He joined the school Photographic Society and learned the skills of developing and printing `during many lunch hours spent in the darkroom at Hurst House’, and bought his own camera with money earned from a paper delivery round in Old Whittington. Since then he has never been without a camera, and has recorded images of his life and adventures all over the world, although it could have been so different but for a narrow escape when he was fifteen! Graham explains:

“ I took my new camera on a school trip to Norway in 1961, and whilst waiting for a plane at Stavanger airport – it was announced that the plane had crashed on its way to collect us and all aboard had been killed”.

But this experience didn’t affect his love of flying, indeed, his superb portfolio of photographs includes numerous aerial shots taken from aeroplanes, helicopters, and his own hot air balloon, which he utilises to good effect for some of the illustrations in his books.

Graham graduated from Salford University in 1968 with a Joint Honours degree in Zoology and Botany, specialising in parasitology and entomology, and upon graduation, married Joan, a primary school teacher from Liverpool, whom he had met two years earlier in Manchester.

Graham taught for a term at Ashby de la Zouch Grammar School whilst undertaking a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at the University of Leicester specialising in Secondary Science teaching, and then applied to the Ministry of Overseas Development for a post as a teacher in Uganda.

“This was against all the advice given by the university who suggested it was career suicide to work as a teacher overseas before gaining experience in British schools, but Joan and I were determined that this was what we really wanted to do”, he says.

There were already six biology teachers at Kololo Senior Secondary School in Kampala when he arrived as the new science teacher in 1969, but within six months Graham had been appointed Head of Department.

“The school had two thousand pupils aged from 12 to 25, with twenty three different nationalities, but predominantly Asian, and I taught science to `O’ Level and Biology to `A’ Level”, said Graham. He also set up a school darkroom and started a Camera Club – but it was his love of photography that got him arrested by Idi Amin’s army in 1971!

He explained:

“Amin expelled all Asians, and thousands lined queues in Kampala to collect their passports and board buses. Some were my friends, fellow teachers and pupils, and I was taking pictures of them leaving, when suddenly I was grabbed by Amin’s soldiers, accused of spying, and taken away to HQ for interrogation”.

In the cells he was grilled and accused of being a colonialist spy, but gained his freedom in exchange for his camera and equipment, together worth around two thousand pounds.

“People were just `disappearing’ - no one was safe, said Graham, adding philosophically, `a camera and equipment are replaceable – a life isn’t”.

Despite the regime change, the Hobsters stayed a further two years in Kampala to the end of Graham’s contract, and he says, “The experience was invaluable and we never regretted our decision to go to Africa”.

The Hobsters returned to England in 1973 and Graham became Head of Biology at Colfox School in Bridport, Dorset.

Inevitably, he also started a school Camera Club, and set up a darkroom!

Following the birth of daughter Anya in 1976, the family moved to Derbyshire to be closer to Graham’s ageing parents, and he became Head of Science at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Ashbourne, a post he held from 1977 until his retirement in August 2002. In the interim, a second daughter, Tamsin was born in 1978, and Graham became Examinations Officer for the school and a member of the Senior Management Team, later Acting Deputy Head-Teacher.

He also became a self-taught expert with computers, building his first computer from a kit, and ten years later, was appointed the first Advanced Skills Teacher in Derbyshire - responsible for providing computer training for staff at twenty local Primary schools!

Whilst at Ashbourne he purchased a hot-air balloon, qualified as a pilot in 1986, and flew for almost a decade, taking numerous aerial photographs of Derbyshire and places further afield to add to his growing portfolio.

Following his retirement in 2002, Graham concentrated his attention on a new career as a freelance photographer and writer, and along with co-author and long-time friend Gunther Endres, wrote his his first book; published in 2003 by Crowood Press in the Vital Guides series of Airlife Books, `Medieval Castle Ruins of England & Wales’ is described as `a superbly illustrated reference guide to medieval castles’.

“Meanwhile we had nurtured a desire to return to Africa, said Graham, `Anya was now married and settled in Leek as a Primary School Teacher, and Tamsin, 28, was an ambulance technician and trainee paramedic, so when both my parents died within three weeks of each other in 2003, with no further commitments in England, we decided to volunteer, applied to VSO in 2004 and went out to Malawi”.

Returning to England in the middle of winter was a bit of a culture shock;

“The most noticeable change wasn’t the weather - we were expecting that, said Graham; `it was seeing so many older people, because with aids, famine and lack of resources, there’s hardly anyone over the age of 35 in Malawi”.

Now in his 60th year, Graham hopes to publish further books and a second illustrated book in the same series, `The Abbeys of England & Wales’ also co-written with Gunther Endres, is due to be published in the spring.

His current interests are `anything to do with computers’ and his new career includes web design and ICT training, along with photography.

Graham transferred from film to digital photography in 1998, or as he puts it, ` I exchanged my darkroom for a copy of Photoshop’ – and launched his own website on the Internet, sharing and selling his wonderfully illustrative photos to a global clientelle.

He admits that he would have loved to have been an artist with paint and brush: “But I’m useless with either, so instead photography becomes my medium and the camera my mode of artistic expression. I love flying and enjoy travelling, and capturing impressions in the camera, which I see as an art form; landscape, nature, architecture, candid rather than contrived shots – but no figurative work. I hate to manoeuvre people and dislike intruding on space, so for instance, I could never be a wedding photographer!”

Graham uses an Olympus E10 with an IBM 340mb Microdrive and his portfolio is vast, including images captured from his travels in the USA, Brazil, Uganda, Peru, Galapagos Islands, Amazonia, Jordan, Namibia, Prague, and the ancient city of Pompeii. To these he has recently added some colourful pictures from his Malawi experience.

My favourites are those of the Grand Canyon and Machu Pichu, and as a newly converted fan of his website, I can hardly wait to see his captured impressions and images of Antarctica and Cambodia!

Check them out for yourself at

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