Dan Freedman: 'Mr Baldwin was Superman for us'

Writer Dan Freedman recalls his fondness for two teachers – one who gave him the best piece of writing advice and another who remains an inspiration to him

My best teacher: Dan Freedman

Martin Hitchcock was just a really nice person. I know it sounds like a simple thing, but obviously it means a lot. I was – well am – a bit stubborn, and didn’t exactly cause trouble at school, but I didn’t automatically have respect for teachers. 
 
He’s got a bit of panache, he used to wear a cravat and we didn’t know what one was – it was the subject of much discussion! He’s got a bit style, a bit of swagger about him. He’s officially retired but he still does a lot of tutoring – I guess it's what makes him tick. I think he, like many teachers, really enjoys that as opposed to form filling, or an exam-cramming style of teaching. He likes to spark that love for literature and the conversation around it.

The beginning

Mr Hitchcock played the long game with us. It was a unique approach to teaching English: he didn’t go mad at us, and once we’d metaphorically punched ourselves out, he was still there offering openness and constructive opportunity to enjoy his subject. It became a free platform to say what you thought about the pieces of work we were studying.

I think my attitude was connected with my lack of confidence. I didn’t really believe that I was very good at English and he broke down the barrier of apprehension. He told me – and it’s still the best piece of writing advice that I’ve ever, ever had – to not believe that the first thing you put down on paper has to be brilliant, it’s just a case of committing something to paper. It’s an understanding that writing is not an event or a moment, but a process. If you can be unfiltered at the beginning of that process then you’ll have more material that can then snowball and evolve. 

A clear pathway 

Pre-GCSE we had to do a writing project and I didn’t know what to do, and he suggested I do it on football, and I said, ‘What? I can write about football, that counts?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And obviously, that’s been a clear pathway for me. 
 
I found that amazing, that I could talk to him about what I was going to write and get some feedback before I did it, and then get my work marked. And that’s kind of continued. If I’m writing a book now I tell him what I’m thinking about and we discuss it. I send him my work and get him to put some ticks on it and write, 'Well done Dan, you’re along the right lines here.' 
 
He's been at my side, had my back and seen me at my worst, and still thought I was worth persevering with. I’m incredibly grateful and now count him as my friend – and still my teacher.

‘Top man’

I was also really lucky to have Dave Baldwin as a form tutor at primary school. He made every day going into school like being on the best chat show in the world. He was just funny, charismatic, musical and brilliant at all sports, particularly football. 

He taught me to kick a football against the wall with both feet to make sure I was good on either foot – and that became the first line I wrote in my debut Jamie Johnson book. 
 
Everything he said just stuck with all of us, and ultimately, he was just a likeable man. He was brilliant at art, so if you did a good piece of work he would do a drawing on your book for motivation, it was incredible. 

I’m looking at it now, it’s on my wall. He was just a top man, really.

‘It’s not good’ 

About seven years ago I was asked back to that school – St Anthony's School in Hampstead – to talk to the kids there. One of the teachers, Brendan, asked me, ‘Did you hear about Dave?’ I said, ‘No, how is he?’ And he said, ‘He’s got cancer and it’s not good.’
 
It was just so shocking. Obviously when anything like that happens to anyone it’s horrendous, but when you put someone on superhuman status, it doesn’t seem to compute that that person. He was Superman for us.
 
So, I made contact and he was just as incredible as ever. In fact, he was more incredible because he was still the same guy even after everything he’d been through, and ultimately, he knew that it was not going to be a battle that he was going to win. 
 
When I’d call him up and I’d say, ‘Dave, how are you?’, he'd always say, ‘Fannntastic!’ And it just, you know, the way he faced what he was going through – it was the greatest lesson anyone could possibly have. 
 
We were talking with no holes barred – and as I said he could do everything, he could sing, he could draw – and he said one of the things he wanted to get done in his life was to have an illustration published in a children’s book. 

At the time I was writing the Jamie Johnson book, Skills in Brazil in which one of Jamie’s teachers, Mr Pratley, has a grudge against him and keeps shouting at Jamie. But when he’s shouting at him, a bogey comes out of his nose, so Jamie starts laughing. I said, 'Dave, would you possibly be kind enough to illustrate that moment?' He did it and it’s in the book.

From my youngest years to every day now, he’s been an absolute inspiration to me.
 
Dan Freedman was talking to Kate Parker

CV

Born: London, 1977

Education: St Anthony’s, Hampstead and University College School, Hampstead 

Career: Dan Freedman a children’s author. He’s best known for the Jamie Johnson series, and has recently published Unstoppable, a young adult book about knife crime

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