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My best teacher

One of my first French masters at Eton was David Cornwell, who became the thriller writer John le Carre. Then David Callender took over. He became my appointed senior teacher and had the unenviable job of trying to help me get the five O-levels (and two A-levels) I needed to get into Sandhurst. The only thing I ever wanted to do was to be a regular army officer.

Eventually they realised that I was badly designed for understanding maths or sciences so I was switched to languages, and Mr Callender taught me French, English and German after school in a small group at his home. He was so good at his job that I actually found, for the first time, that I was competent at something. I enjoyed German and was good at it, and I discovered I had a talent for writing.

One project he set was to select a book and precis the whole thing in a certain number of words. I chose the autobiography of a Russian Englishmen, Serge Obolensky, called One Man in his Time, and I had about a week to reduce around 100,000 words to 2,000. I found it challenging and satisfying, and being used to teachers being honest, and therefore rude, about things I did, I bathed in the genuine praise I got. It gave me confidence and I thought: "Gosh, I'm going to be good at English," and I realised I could write. Everything I have done since has been thanks to Mr Callender's inspiration.

Before I came under his tuition, I had a sense of failure at school. I didn't think I was ever going to get one O-level, never mind five. I eventually got four, but I didn't manage any A-levels, even though I went to a crammer. I never got to Sandhurst. Instead, I took a short service commission and joined the Royal Scots Greys and, later, the SAS.

About a year after I left Eton, I went back to the school with some friends and disrupted the Fourth of June celebrations. The night before the famous fireworks and procession of boats, we laid ropes and hooks using underwater equipment. Then, when the Eights stood up in their narrow boats to throw their hats into the air, we livened up the proceedings by overturning their craft.

Unfortunately, my diving equipment went wrong and I shot to the surface and was chased by a couple of motorboats driven by the Etonian river masters - one of whom was Mr Callender. I headed for the bank and some overhanging trees, where I got rid of the air cylinder. I found running difficult in a frog suit, so when a group of senior boys was put ashore to chase me, I lay in a deep puddle, with my nose just above water level. Eventually I got back to the car and changed.

Unfortunately, the abandoned air cylinder, which I had borrowed from my girlfriend (now my wife), had a number on it and I thought I would be in trouble from my prospective father-in-law, and others, if it was found. I fooled one of the boys into giving me a lift to pick it up by saying I was an Eton boy and I'd seen some hoodlums with an air bottle on the other bank and I was going to take it back to Mr Callender. Because I was able to mention his name, they believed me, and I got away with it.

About 15 years later, I told this story in one of my books, and some years after that, when another of my books became a bestseller, Mr Callender wrote to me and invited me to visit. He was friendly and charming and we laughed about the incident with the boats, but I'm not sure he had always laughed about it.

Explorer Ranulph Fiennes was talking to Pamela Coleman


1944 Born in Windsor

1956-60 Attends Eton

1960 Attends a crammer in Hove, fails A-levels twice

1962 Joins the Army's Royal Scots Greys regiment

1965 Posted to the SAS

1967 First expedition - to the Nile by hovercraft

1968-70 Serves with the army of the Sultan of Oman

1982 With Charlie Burton, becomes first explorer to reach both Poles

1991 Completes first unsupported crossing of Antarctic

1993 Leads expedition to locate the lost city of Ubar in Oman

October 2001 Publication of a novel, The Secret Hunters (Little Brown)

November 2001 Completes endurance race, Southern Traverse, in New Zealand

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