I went home the other day. I mean home-home, where I was born, and where my parents still live. They were having one of their sporadic clean-outs. My father handed me a folder relating to my time at school. It contained reports, reviews of plays in the school magazine, uniform lists. Except for my ill-fated attempts at acting I had remembered none of it. One of my reports, opened at random, said: ‘Anthony’s chief enjoyment (and success) this term has been on the cricket pitch.’ I had just taken my A Levels.
To be fair to the man who wrote this, he wasn’t being unkind. Cricket was all I cared about. I have the A levels to prove it. I’d like to pretend he was somehow speaking out of his desire to persecute me (a story I was happy to tell myself even years after I had left the place). But that wouldn’t be true. I flicked through one or two more. Nearly all of them, written by men and women the same age that I am now, are cheerful and well-meaning, doing everything they can to search for the good in my pathologically lazy eighteen-year-old self. Though some of them stung at the time, I now see them as erring on the side of generosity. To a fault. Knowing what I do about teaching and teachers and schools, I’m tempted to say one or two of them might have been written in a bit of a rush, some even with the help of a thesaurus.
But for all their faults, real or falsely remembered, I’d like to say thank you. Nearly all of my teachers were kinder than I knew, and generous with their wisdom and patience. I feel this especially towards my English teachers –Tim Borton, Peta Hooper and John Vickery – whom I still think of as embodying a gold standard of what education is about and can achieve, where open ended discussions and personal interpretations of books and poems and plays were not only tolerated but explicitly encouraged.
There was personal encouragement, too, not often given, making it all the more precious. Mr Vickery scrawled ‘Shades of Thomas in here!’ under a prose composition using Under Milk Wood as its thinly-disguised template. Whilst I felt simultaneously impressed and irked that he had spotted what I was up to, I also knew that such words were not cheap. It was all the oxygen I needed. Even when Mr Borton scolded my homework-poem, on the topic of ‘Black’ (‘You have spoiled an interesting poem with a clunky and too-conclusive ending’), he left just enough in there for me to believe in the possibility that future poems might be more successful. I’d be lying if I said a part of me was not still trying to impress him.
They knew their stuff, and nobody messed with them. The rolled up sleeves, cords and tie at half-mast aesthetic of Borton and Vickery belied their dogged and sometimes Jesuitical relish for an argument. Though more introverted than her colleagues, this applied no less forcefully to Mrs Hooper. I remember a particular exchange with her at the end of one lesson, everyone suddenly on their feet at the sound of the bell, a low murmur of chatter spreading round the room as we packed our things away. Wanting to get away from the front of the class where I’d been sitting under her nose, she spied the beaten up copy of John Fowles’s The Collector under my arm.
‘Enjoying it?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said. And then, hoping to impress her, ‘But I think it’s a bit sordid.’
‘Is it? Why did you say that?’
‘Well, it’s, you know, it’s… The way he traps her, it’s fairly… Isn’t it?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’ She smiled at me. ‘Perhaps you’re thinking it is immoral? Or confusing it with that. But the book, would you say that it is an immoral book, or an extremely moral book, raising important questions about class, power, control and gender. Wouldn’t you think?’ She blinked at me through her bottle bottom glasses.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Perhaps you had better finish it, and let me know then,’ she smiled again. ‘And anyway, I mustn’t keep you and make you late for your next lesson. Now that really would be immoral.’
A part of me still thinks of being lost in a thriller as the basic idea of having a good time. My housemaster, whose duty it was to scrutinise the list of books I claimed to have read each term, thought otherwise. He scolded me for daring to admit reading The Odessa File, Airport, The Eagle Has Landed and The Tunnel. If it didn’t involve ten foot snowdrifts, improbable assassination attempts and/or escapes from wartime Germany (or preferably all three), I wasn’t interested. ‘Haven’t you read anything else?’ he said. ‘No sir,’ I replied, wondering what he meant. But I had, mostly without knowing it. Ted Hughes’s animal poems. Roger McGough’s ‘40 Love’. The Wizard of Earthsea. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Animal Farm. Because of these and other interventions, I also still long for that sense of being overwhelmed by the words (and worlds) I am reading, what John Logan called ‘a soft caving in my stomach/As at the top of the highest slide’. These instincts are not polar opposites, though school (absolutely not my English Teachers) did try to teach me that if I didn’t have my head in a Graham Greene or a Dickens I was wasting my time. For a sheltered public schoolboy at the tail end of the seventies whose reading up to that point had comprised the Jennings books, belatedly expanding to his father’s library of Alistair Maclean and Frederick Forsyth, they opened up a world of something other, which has not let go of me since.
If words do govern a life as Sylvia Plath says, I can say my training ground was the most benevolent of nurseries. I am certain my life would have turned out very differently had I not encountered them. I left school thinking my single greatest achievement had been to bowl out the cricket master in the annual match against the Seconds. (I tend to think my teachers thought the same.) I now think it is to remember him and his colleagues with gratitude, even though it has taken me thirty-plus years to say so.
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