|JOANNE FLEMING TALKS TO PETER JACKSON, WHO APPEARED AT RAILWAY STREET PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH THIS WEEK|
AS PETER Jackson lay dying from pneumonia at the age of 11, his Uncle Jim said, by way of comforting his parents, "It's a blessing in disguise really. He would never make much any way".
Certainly, the odds weren't good.
Peter had already suffered from scarlet fever the summer before and years of malnourishment and mistreatment had taken their toll. To add to this, Peter was blind.
Life was harsh and often cruel in the 19 years he'd spent in various institutions for the blind where his only consolation was learning and playing the piano - a field in which he was clearly gifted.
Known locally as `a real grave cheater' his survival prompted an intense spiritual ' awakening in Peter which in turn led to his abandoning dreams he'd harboured of a ' career in show business.
To date his hundreds of visits to Northern Ireland over the years from his home in Wales have impacted on a variety of people, from UDA prisoners to the people of Lisburn - whom he credits with rescuing him from the biggest spiritual and financial crisis of his life.
Peter Jackson lost his sight at the age of 16 months after contracting measles in hospital.
This was back in 1933, when his mother already had four children under the age of seven to cope with, plus another one on the way. On medical advice she reluctantly left the distressed toddler with The National Institute for the Blind at Leamington Spa.
It was the start of an unsettling childhood for Peter that saw him being shipped to various institutions around the country.
Corporal punishment was generally meted out viciously, and when he moved to senior school at the age of ten, things did not improve.
"If we had been permanently hungry before, we were now often starving," he says, and some of the staff were ruthlessly cruel."
Two incidents in particular stand out in his memory.
"After washing, we had to line up in the courtyard - rain or shine for inspection, and were required to wash according to the standard of the supervisor. If he decided we had not washed sufficiently well, then `measures' would be taken," Peter revealed.
"One. morning he decided that my partially-sighted friend, Eric had not washed properly. He said he could see a tide mark around his neck. "Eric protested, and in doing so, he took the unfortunate step of raising his fists in frustration."
The supervisor's reaction to this left 14-year-old Eric in no doubt as to what was to ensue.
He was to be engaged in a fist fight with the visor, from which there could be only one outcome ...There was- not much that Eric could do, and before long he was lying bruised, bloodied and breathless on the floor."
An unidentified `Miss T' also failed to recognise that a young boy rocking continuously in his chair was merely showing signs of chronic insecurity.
"Miss T made every effort to rid Bob of the habit. Whenever he started to rock, she would drawl sadistically, 'It's coming, Bob,' and then she would hurl a book at him. If her aim was good she would hit the defenceless Bob as he tried to protect his head with his arms, but if it was not, then some other unsuspecting child would be struck with the dangerous missile."
Surely Peter felt some kind of bitterness towards the staff who mistreated him at these institutions?
"No, I don't now," he replies. "They were probably under pressure. Thinking back, it can't be easy bringing up 56 children who were either partially sighted or blind.
"I think there was a lack of understanding as well which you wouldn't get now ... It's hard to blame people if they misunderstand."
Jackson believes his recovery from pneumonia at the age of 11 was a miracle and God chose to spare him for a reason.
"They had certainly given me up. I was going to be a goner by the morning," he said.
Parents of a school friend who looked him after during the recovery period, however, played more of a pivotal role in shaping his beliefs.
"It was staying with the Tolley's and being part of their life and their family which was terrific and certainly that was the turning point. It was an intense period for me as an 11-year-old, it had an amazing impact."
At the age of 17, after an unhappy period of training as an upholsterer, Peter convinced his teachers to let him train as a piano tuner. His father, realising that his son's talents presented a commercial opportunity, also got him into the working men's club scene.
Sunday was a day of `recovery' and Peter had little interest in anything to do with church, with his recovery from pneumonia a distant memory at that point. A visit from a group of American evangelists to his home town in Birmingham however, put him back on track.
His ambition up to that point, was to be a jazz pianist but it was something he was quite prepared to surrender.
"At that time there was no way that I could see playing boogiewoogie or jazz music was in God's service. So I went extreme," he said
"I was quite prepared just to play 4-part hymns - to play any other kind of music then would have been a negation of that. Of course I realised that was an extreme thing and in any case listening to gospel music from America changed my mind.
"Everything I'd learned and imbibed musically growing up was now to be used for gospel music - classical and jazz. In fact I don't see them as opposites any more. I think there are just two kinds of music - good and bad."
Peter began travelling on behalf of Youth for Christ and later with MWE, the Movement for World Evangelism, and pioneered the 'Torch Fellowship' which aimed for better integration between blind and sighted people. He married wife Margaret in 1962 and the couple have three children, Tim, Chris and Beth
In response to demand from national radio stations, his constant trips to Northern Ireland also resulted in a fair amount of television coverage and he 'was a regular guest on Gloria Hunniford's Scene around Six.
Peter first visited Northern Ireland in January 1971 to assist with a coffee bar mission for MWE (Movement for World Evangelism) in Ballymena. But the next month he was back, this time in Belfast, forming another Torch Fellowship group