Skip to main content

Alastair Campbell: My best teacher

Brecht and Goethe were passions for the one-time Labour press supremo who loved learning languages

News article image

Brecht and Goethe were passions for the one-time Labour press supremo who loved learning languages

I was born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, but when I was 11 my father, a vet, went to work for the Ministry of Agriculture and we moved to Leicester. I was enrolled at City of Leicester Boys' School, a comprehensive, in the middle of term.

In my fourth and fifth years and in the sixth form I had John Webster as my German teacher. I studied English, French and German at A-level. My father came from the Inner Hebrides and English was his second language after Gaelic, and one of my two brothers is a linguist, so an interest in languages runs in the family.

Mr Webster was a very encouraging teacher - he obviously loved the language and loved it when people really engaged with it. Once he accompanied us on a school trip to Krefeld in Germany and the teachers we met there said Mr Webster was the only non-German they had ever heard who spoke the language flawlessly. That impressed me.

Because my school was very much maths and science-focused, there were only two of us in my upper-sixth German class with Mr Webster, so we got very intensive teaching. I liked school and had a slight workaholic streak in me. When I studied for my German A-level, for example, we did Goethe and Brecht and I wouldn't just cover what we studied in class, but I would study around the subject off my own bat as well. He also encouraged us to listen to German radio and he took me to Birmingham University to see the German department perform plays.

Mr Webster was the sort of guy you could nab outside the classroom and have extra time with, too. He probably quite liked me because I worked hard and he said I had an extraordinary capacity for retention. If he was explaining some complicated construction in German, I got it straight away. He was strict if he had to be, but you got a lot out of him if you behaved. I can see with my own children, when they talk about teachers, there are those they like and there are those they respect, but if you can get a combination of that in a teacher, the chances are they are teaching you very well. Mr Webster was like that.

As a student I was a bit lively, but I did not misbehave. I only got the cane once, when I was caught shoplifting. My only other act of rebellion was wearing a Burnley Football Club scarf in class - eventually the teachers got tired of asking me to take it off.

It was Mr Webster who suggested I apply to Oxbridge - neither my parents nor I had thought about it. I think I was the first at my school to go to Oxbridge to study languages, when I was accepted to Gonville and Caius at Cambridge to read French and German. I thought maybe I would go to work in the European Union.

I didn't keep in touch with Mr Webster after I left school, but when I worked for Tony Blair he wrote to me at a time when I was getting a lot of flak in the press. His message was something along the lines of, "Don't let the bastards get you down". He wrote again when my father died. I found it very touching. He retired at 55 and lives out in Norfolk and is a guide on local history. He told me he still has one of my German essays, which is flattering.

I thought of Mr Webster when I agreed to teach politics at Jamie's Dream School, a new series I'm involved in. I found that teaching the kids there, who had all left school without any qualifications, could be a bit difficult, but they confirmed my view that if you give kids a chance, most of them will take it.

Alastair Campbell appeared in Jamie's Dream School, on Wednesday, March 9. He was talking to Vicki Power


Born: Yorkshire, 1957

Education: City of Leicester Boys' Grammar School; Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Career: Political editor on the Daily Mirror and the Today newspaper; chief press secretary and director of communications for former prime minister Tony Blair.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you