Hanging out with Harry Fairchild is like being with a celebrity. We spent half an hour sitting outside Sydney Street’s Flour Pot Bakery and – in-between buying a natty Hawaiian shirt from Dirty Harry’s across the road – our Harry is interrupted every few minutes by someone he knows. They invariably come in for a hug before he apologetically explains that he’s being interviewed, and we continue until the next fan arrives.
Harry is 27, has Down’s Syndrome, and is the de facto ambassador for the Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) that we’re here to discuss. BTTC are one of the city’s jewels: an all-inclusive club that welcomes people who might find acceptance difficult elsewhere. Its famous All-Comers session accepts any player of any standard, and amongst the club's 1,250 weekly players are people with learning and/or physical disabilities, young local travellers, looked after children, people with cancer, and young asylum seekers.
The centre was opened in 2007 by ex-England junior players Tim Holtam and Harry McCarney and now run over 100 tables across the city, including in schools, sheltered housing schemes, a homeless centre and a psychiatric hospital. Harry – who was the world's first qualified table tennis coach with Down’s Syndrome and has won numerous international tournaments – is just one of many lives the BTTC has positively altered. He wanted to tell his story.
Hey Harry! When did you join Brighton Table Tennis Club?
I joined five years ago.
Had you played before?
Not really. A bit on holiday and when we went camping. But not properly. I started coming to Brighton Table Tennis Club with a group from Grace Eyre [the learning disabilities foundation] but quite quickly Tim Holtam [head coach of the club] asked me to join an open session.
Aren’t you a coach now?
Yes, I did a course and now I teach lots of people in the club! But I also teach at High Down prison, St Luke’s Primary school and Patching Lodge, which is an old people’s home.
That's great! You must play a lot then?
Yes I play a lot. Every day. I also have two tables at home but I love to play most at Brighton Table Tennis Club.
What are the other coaches there like?
They’re all my friends and I love them. I call Tim Holtam ‘The Boss’ and he made me the godfather to his daughter! I was so happy that I cried when he told me. Then there’s Pedro Santos. I’m going on holiday with him in June to meet his family in Portugal.
He must really like you if he’s taking you to see his family.
Yeah! And I love coach Wen-Wei too. We coach at Patching Lodge and High Down prison together. He has been teaching me Chinese words. He taught me ‘hello’, ‘I love you’ and ‘how are you?’. Being with him makes me feel good in my heart.
How do you personally feel about Brighton Table Tennis Club?
The club is very important to me. I am happy there.
You recently won the a gold medal at the world championships [at the 2017 SU-DS International Championships for Athletes with Down Syndrome in Porto]. How was that?
Oh, it was very good! I scored the winning shot, which was very, very good.
We’ve heard that you now have a part-time job at the Hand in Hand pub?
Yes. It’s across the road from Brighton Table Tennis Club and I used to go in and say hello to them. I said I wanted a job and they gave me one!
Did you always want to work in a pub?
I actually wanted to work in the pub in Eastenders, but I like it there too!
That’s awesome, Harry. Thanks!
Harry’s mum, Linsey, helped out during the interview. She also wanted to say the following about Brighton Table Tennis Club:
“I can’t praise the club enough. It’s made such a huge difference to Harry’s life; not just keeping him fitter but opening access to so many different people and friendships. He feels relaxed there and feels himself there. He’s a obviously a little bit different, but at BTTC he’s just another table tennis player. He’s surrounded by older people, younger people, people with disabilities, refugees, able-bodied. The common thread is they all love table tennis and they end up forming friendships that you wouldn’t otherwise come across.”
Check out the great work Brighton Table Tennis Club are doing and come join them for an open session. All standards welcome…
And check our previous entries in our ‘We ❤️ Brighton Heroes’ series