David Starkey

Tes Editorial

Two contrasting characters - one sensitive, the other not - helped mould this famous historian into the orator he is today.None of my teachers were particularly inspirational. I didn't have a Hector, if you think in terms of The History Boys. But what I did get out of my secondary school was the wonderful experience of acting and debating, which was vastly more important to me than anything that went on in the classroom.

Kendal Grammar in Cumbria was a school of ancient foundations, dating back to 1526. It is now Kirkbie Kendal School. Most of our schoolmasters when I was there tended to err on the side of severity. It was not a savage school, there were hardly any beatings (I remember only two), but the atmosphere was masculine and fairly aggressive.

George Zair was my history master. He was extremely intellectual and quite domineering. He had narrowly failed to become a history don at Cambridge and he made no bones about the fact that being a schoolmaster was second best.

I remember he had a heavy face with marked features and tight, curly hair. His teaching of anything below sixth form level was rather narrow - it was the traditional way of teaching history: immense wodges of notes and all the rest of it. I remember we once put on a school review that included a satire on school history. Someone dressed up as Zair with a wig of brillo pads, then simply snored in front of a class, which snored back, rhythmically. We made our point and we ruffled an enormous number of feathers, too.

But when I reached the sixth form, things changed dramatically and George Zair was suddenly wonderful. As I was by far the ablest of the group, I received what was, in effect, university teaching much of the time. He wasn't "teaching" in the conventional sense. It was more like recognising talent, then doing everything you could to develop it, but really leaving the person to develop it by themselves. What he really taught me was intellectual self-confidence and independence.

George and another master, Edmund Mounsey, produced the school plays. Mounsey was sensitive and imaginative - he actually gave me a love of literature by encouraging my fondness for language. I've always been good with words: I have an unusually developed vocabulary and I'd read widely even before I went to grammar school.

George and Mounsey were such contrasting characters, but together they made a brilliant team. They gave me the opportunity to act - my first big part was Malvolio in Twelfth Night. They gave me confidence in public performance, the ability to hold the stage. George and Mounsey were also the key figures in the school elocution competition. We had to read an unseen piece of prose, recite from heart a piece of poetry and make a stump speech, where one was expected to talk confidently and fluently without notes. The school assembled to witness this competition in the hall. We were summoned, one by one.

I still remember going up. At the top of the steps, George was there with a faintly sadistic leer on his face. He would present me with a folded slip of paper and I had no more time than it took to walk to the centre of the stage before I had to start speaking on that topic. The first time I did this, I was 12. It was the only time I was ever popular at school, because I invariably won the competition for my house.

I owe that school and my teachers an enormous debt. They gave me the basic grounding in languages, in English grammar and in the processes of orderly, logical thought. They laid the foundations of writing and did more than lay the foundations of confidence in public speaking, on which the whole of my future career was built. Yes, Cambridge carried it all much further, but the foundations were laid at Kendal Grammar.

Dr David Starkey CBE is a historian and broadcaster. His latest book, Monarchy: The History of England Her Rulers from the Tudors to the Windsors is published by Harper. The DVD, Monarchy - The Complete Third Series, was released last month by Channel 4. He was talking to Mary McCarney.

Register to continue reading for free

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

Tes Editorial

Latest stories