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A genius worthy of imitation

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 28 February, 1997 | By: Harvey McGavin

RORY BREMNER TALKS TO HARVEY McGAVIN. I went to prep school just outside Edinburgh and then Wellington School in Somerset. There are three buildings within close range: Broadmoor; Wellington College; and Sandhurst. I think my parents were actually sending me to Broadmoor but they ran out of petrol.

My best teacher was my French teacher, Derek Swift. What stuck out instantly was that he was unconventional - you didn't expect to find him in an English public school. He was a Northerner and spoke with a Bradford accent.

He disliked people having to leave his class and go off to play rugby. He would say "go off and break your neck". When supervising the lunch queue, which was one of the jobs he had to do, instead of calling people by their names he would say: "Oi, infant".

You can tell how good he was because there were 24 in our class and at O-level 21 got As and three got Bs. At the beginning of the lesson there would be an empty board and by the end it would be packed with words. Every time a word came up he would lean back and write it up. He would frequently punctuate it with "As you remember from your Serbo-Croat..." and a Serbo-Croat word would appear on the board. You would have words from four or five languages in all different colours by the end of every lesson. For the first time language began to make sense and you were aware that languages had come from a common source.

Another thing about him was that he would have photocopied sheets printed off. One was "No. 591: Common Grammar Mistakes" which was a list of things such as adjectives agreeing with nouns. So when you got a piece of work back it would have at the bottom, in brilliant red ink, underlined three or four times - 591.

He also looked after the school bookshop. I was reading things such as Pushkin's love poems and it was absolutely inspiring stuff. We got bitten by the Russian bug and he said he would teach us Russian in our spare time. Six of us did O-level and two got As and four got Bs in a year.

He also ran the school film club. Previously it would be things such as Bridge over the River Kwai and he would bring in things like Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and Roman Polanski's Repulsion. He believed very firmly that cinema was the art form of our age so he would get us watching Woody Allen or Eisenstein.

A lot of English people still seem to speak French in the "est-ce que" school and he would get us out of that by learning phrases. Once you had learned these phrases you could relax. Gradually they would come together and it would encourage you to think in French because you had a whole stock of ready phrases in your mind.

He wasn't theatrical or flamboyant, he was just a genius - he spoke about 10 or 12 languages. At the time the other teachers were still using audio visual stuff: "Listen to this and repeat." And this was made to look so pedestrian by his style which was like a Catherine Wheel approach to learning.

When we were learning German with another teacher it was all "have... you... seen... the... big... blue... car...". So when we got to the oral exam I remember being completely flummoxed by the speed of the questions.

Mr Swift was different from every other teacher. There was always a twinkle in his eye and he had a waspish sense of humour. When I had my first crush he said: "I refer you to First Love by Turgenev."

A lot of public schools are full of people who have been in the army and teach history and here was somebody who came from Bradford, put his feet on the desk, littered the board with words, introduced you to great films. He was absolutely the business.

Because I am essentially an imitative person, if I was inspired by a person I would be inspired to imitate them. He was the first person I did an impression of in public. We put on a revue and I came on in a grey suit and a duffel coat and it went down a storm.

I bumped into him when I was on tour about 10 years ago and I stopped at a restaurant in Nottingham. He had left Wellington and gone to Loughborough Grammar School. He's now head of modern languages at Harrow.

A few years ago I was doing a sketch about the common market and we decided to begin the programme in French. So we had Peter Snow as Pierre Niege and I rang up Mr Swift to check the script. And he said: "Right, you've made an elementary mistake here. If I could remind you of 591..." So we had a good laugh about that.

I went on the Big Breakfast and people were ringing and doing impressions and I was judging the impressions. It was my birthday and they had people like Des Lynam and David Frost ringing up just to catch me out. Then this voice said "Oi, infant" and Mr Swift appeared and I was thrilled to bits.

Comedian Rory Bremner is on tour until March 20 at venues nationwide.

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Comment (4)

  • I had Derek Swift as my French teacher at Harrow! He remains my favorite and most memorable teacher to date. I went to college in the US and used his persona as the protagonist of my entry essay! Glad to have stumbled upon this article... he really was a hilarious genius. In fact -- I would spend time in class writing down all his hysterical expressions and compiled a list with them!

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    18 June, 2009


  • I love this article!
    It just shows how much difference a great teacher can make, that you still remember your lessons so vividly all these years later. Even better that he is clearly consistent in his approach and enthusiasm whenever, wherever, and whoever he teaches. I'm in the 'we love Mr Swift' club already and I've never even met him (although it does help that he's a fellow northener!)

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    4 July, 2011


  • Delighted to come across this article. I'm sitting in a bar in KL reading Barnes' Something to Declare and Derek just popped into my mind - Flaubert, Maupassant...? From 79-81 he tried to teach me French at Loughborough (he thought I was an oik, fine but a bit harsh coming from a Bradfordian) and was grim, sarky and fantastic; a smoking snooker player who used to tell us about 'my mate, Pete' (it was Yorkshire Ripper time). Any knowledge of grammar and language structures I have started with him (and have been duly passed on to a generation or so of Malaysians, I like to think).

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    29 September, 2012


  • 'I'm talking to the engine driver, not the oily rag!' was my favourite of his expressions if he looked at someone for an answer and someone else gave it. He was indeed a genius and by far my favourite teacher. I happen to be doing a bit of English teaching in Mexico right now and only this week I was thinking of using his standard example of how to form verbs with variations on the phrase 'I kicked the cat', 'you kicked the cat', etc.
    Des Swift (as we used to call him) was indeed a very special teacher.

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    21 April, 2015


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