Stephen Binns MBE
Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson
Honorable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Steve Binns MBE for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of Liverpool John Moores University.
As the city council's community historian, he spends much of his time talking of Liverpool's past while also extolling its virtues as a thoroughly modern city. His guided tours are the stuff of legend with many a visitor having been wowed by his knowledge and his passion. And that's without even mentioning that Steve is blind. So said The Liverpool Echo's Joe Riley recently of Steve Binns.
From an Irish Catholic family chased out of Cork in the 1830s, Steve was born prematurely in Oxford Street Maternity Hospital in 1952, weighing less than 3 lbs. He was given oxygen to help increase his weight, but the treatment cost him his sight.
Steve didn't enjoy his schooldays as a boarder at Liverpool School for the Blind and he left with few qualifications. He had however developed an abiding interest in history, and had acquired the priceless ability to read Braille. After a spell making wall brackets, he moved on to a job at Liverpool Council Workshops for the Blind on Cornwallis Street which was to change his life. He describes it as a 'tough old character-building place' where, as local Branch secretary to the National League of the Blind and Disabled, he learned to deal with conflict and adversity.
He learned to speak in public, to argue his case and to travel independently. He subsequently served on the National Executive for a number of years, and has more recently been a part-time Assessor for the Disability Living Allowance Appeals Service. When the workshops were closed, he was transferred into the City Council Promotion and News Department in 1990 where he wrote letters and answered telephones.
Out of boredom one day, he volunteered to act as a Town Hall Guide, and the rest is history. He quickly acquired a formidable knowledge of local history and became an outstanding guide for the Town Hall and St George's Hall for visitors from many countries - he takes his job seriously and can say "Good Morning" in 7 languages. His infectious enthusiasm shines through, and in his words, his disability can add to the mad comedy of it all. For instance, staff occasionally move objects without telling him and he describes objects that aren't there. He also finds that when he is standing outside the Town Hall, he is often asked by tour visitors if he is waiting for the guide. He quite enjoys replying, "I am the guide!"
Such has been his impact as a guide that he has received national recognition in the form of an MBE for contributions to heritage, received from HRH Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in 2004. Steve has always had a passion for history, for the trials and tribulations of ordinary people, and for the deeds of giants such as William Gladstone and Josephine Butler. He feels that his knowledge of history has helped him be less judgemental, more open-minded and internationalist in outlook - able to appreciate that no creed, class or nation has all the right answers.
When he's not working, he relaxes with music: he has a season ticket to the Phil, he has 1200 CDs, two-thirds of them classical and one third jazz and popular music. He has every Beatles song ever released and he has been to 11 Bob Dylan concerts. He also has the largest Braille collection in the country and an impressive collection of books, mainly biography and local history. He has also collected 800 toy cats and intends to acquire two real ones when he retires.
Incidentally, he's never had a guide dog, on the grounds that on guided tours of the Town Hall, the dog would get all the credit.
Steve notes that in his life and work, there is always an element of struggle, not least against bureaucracy, but he insists, no element of tragedy. Of course, if there was ever an operation available to restore his sight, he would take it, because it would give him the opportunity to read more books (only about 1 percent of books are in Braille). On the other hand, he thinks that actually watching Everton would be far worse than just listening to the action…
His optimism and enthusiasm for life shine through - he relishes the role of being an ambassador for the blind and has always fought against the idea of victimhood. At the same time, despite the plaudits he regularly receives, he has never let the success go to his head - a true people's champion.
A champion with a focus on the past but with an optimism about the future of Liverpool. This University has already acknowledged the work of Steve Binns in 2003, when he was presented with a bust of his hero, William Ewart Gladstone by Professor The Lord Alton from our Foundation for Citizenship.
We know he was delighted on that occasion, and we would like to delight him once again with the award of a Fellowship.
Thus I have pleasure in presenting Steve Binns, MBE, this most distinguished son of our region, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.