My best teacher

7th April 2006, 1:00am
Rachel Pugh


My best teacher
It was hard growing up in Salford. I was brought up in a tough working-class area of Lower Broughton where, unless you were academic, you were factory fodder. I was creative, so they did not know what to do with me.

Ironically, it was a comment from my class teacher, Mr Straps, in the top class at St Clement's primary school, that took root and made me determined to follow some kind of a creative career. He took me aside and said: "Look Bernard, you are good at art and good at pottery, but unfortunately where you come from that's no use to you, because everyone round here works in a factory."

I was shocked, because pottery and art were the only things I was good at and I was being told they were worthless. I never knew why he had said it - he was a hard man who once caned me for spilling a bottle of milk - but he had spotted me going through books in the school library searching for pictures of paintings. He had also seen how much interest I showed in the school kiln.

What he said stayed in my mind and acted like a spur. I never knew my father and my mother was disabled by cystic fibrosis, so we lived with my grandparents in their terraced house in a really Coronation Street-type area, with a chemical factory at the end of the road. I became determined that I was going to pass my 11-plus and got my grandparents to buy me the books to study for the exam on my own. I still regard it as a bit of a miracle that I made it to Salford grammar school.

The school was a bad experience on the whole for me, because I found the academic work very difficult, but one of my classmates was Peter Hook, with whom I later established Joy Division and then New Order.

The art teacher in my first year was fantastic. I don't remember his name, but he made everything fun, and I did well. It was the only time in my life I was top or second in the class. He left after a year and his replacement was less dynamic and my results slumped.

The other person at Salford grammar important to me was a geography teacher. He was young and just out of college. He had long hair and we thought he was really trendy. He encouraged us to bring our record collections into school to play during the breaktime following his lesson.

I liked the Beatles and the Kinks, but we had no record player at home, so I looked forward to these sessions.

As far as music was concerned, I did not develop a real interest until I was about 15. One thing I had liked at St Clement's, though, was that every morning the headmaster, Mr Alkister, insisted on the whole school listening to a piece of classical music. There was a piece called Night On a Bare Mountain (by Mussorgsky) I thought was great because it stimulated my imagination.

As a teenager, I learned to appreciate music with my friend Hooky through the youth club after school, listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Stones. It was not until I was in my late teens that I bought a guitar and started to teach myself to play. Hooky bought himself a bass.

By then, to my relief, I had left school with two O-levels in art and English and a recommendation that I apply for positions either as a hairdresser or cutting the borders off photographs. Neither appealed but I eventually found a job as a typographer with what became the animation company Cosgrove Hall.

The turning point in my life was the night in 1976 that Hooky and I went to hear the Sex Pistols in Manchester. They had a "you can do it" attitude, and that was it; we decided to form a band. I never went back to see any teachers. I was so glad to leave and St Clement's is now a warehouse. The trouble with school was that no one ever explained to me what the learning was for, so it was just water off a duck's back.

Musician Bernard Sumner was talking to Rachel Pugh

The story so far

1956 Born in Manchester

1960-67 St Clement's primary school, Lower Broughton, Salford

1967-72 Salford grammar school

1977 Forms Warsaw (later renamed Joy Division) with Peter Hook and Ian Curtis

1980 Following Curtis's suicide, Joy Division reform as New Order with Sumner as lead singer and lyricist

1983 Blue Monday becomes biggest selling 12-inch single of all time Early 80s Works with Tony Wilson to set up Factory Records and kickstart Madchester music scene

2001 Releases album Get Ready - New Order's first album for eight years

2005 New Order wins New Musical Express award for Godlike Genius and releases new album Waiting For The Siren's Call

February 2006 New Order releases new single, Turn, on Warner records

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters