My best teacher

For my sins, I was sent to Eton College, where I was deeply unhappy. I didn't come from a background or culture to fit in. My father was a human rights lawyer and I was brought up with refugees in the house. I was lonely, small and a year younger than everyone in my form. I was bullied and I encountered a fair amount of anti-Semitism, even though my family had converted to Catholicism in the 19th century and I was the senior Roman Catholic at Eton and served Mass. "Life isn't fair, Sieghart," I was told. "You'll just have to learn to live with it."

But an English master, Michael Meredith, came to my aid by opening my ears and heart to poetry - and poetry became my companion. He coached me to take part in competitions for public speaking and poetry reading. One year, I managed to win the Loder Declamation prize and was given a 10-bob (50p) book token and a Bible with the headmaster's signature inside.

At A-level, Michael became my form master and taught me English. He demystified such texts as T S Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He was a passionate man; he brought literature to life.

Through the years, I have bumped into many people educated at the same place who feel they owe a similar debt of gratitude to Michael. When I brought out an anthology of favourite poems last year, I dedicated it to him. I sent him a copy and he was very pleased, and he wrote me a lovely long letter.

The other man who has had a great influence on me is a photographer called Aaron Rose. I met him in New York about 10 years ago. He was a gifted and successful commercial photographer in the Sixties but had lost interest, so he spent two years in Europe compiling a collection of medieval farmyard tools which he sold to the Eli Lily Foundation in New York for half a million dollars. He then scoured the flea markets of New York for 19th-century books about photography by the old masters and began to build his own cameras.

He spent the next 25 years taking photographs with these pinhole cameras, but never exhibited or sold his work. When I asked him why, he said he didn't want any distraction. It is only because of straitened financial times over the past two or three years that he has shown his work, which has since become legendary and is now in most of the major museums in America.

Aaron is remarkable. He does not need acclamation, peer group recognition or success in the modern sense. He is self-effacing, always interested in others and has a wonderful ability to encourage and stimulate people. Over the past 10 years, I have accompanied him every year on a trip to some rainforest, and I have sat and listened. He has made me think about what is important. I have always felt that you can't achieve away life's anxieties; you may win the rat race, but you are still a rat at the end of it.

Aaron has taught me about balance and priorities. He has always said to me:

"You must stop looking at other people's reactions to you as a way of reinforcing your sense of self. It's got to come from inside." From him I learned that life is not about things or possessions or famous faces; it's much more about finding peace with yourself and genuine purpose. Whenever I'm really angry about the way the world is treating me, I phone him. He is very sympathetic and then he will ask: "But what about your own behaviour?"

He also loves poetry. I sit in the rainforest and read poems to him while he takes pictures. We conjure up a rather 19th-century scene. He's in his early 60s now. He is a blend of friend, mentor and father figure.

Publisher William Sieghart was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1960 Born London

1973 Attends Eton College

1979-82 Reads politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University

1982 First job, selling photocopiers

1986 Launches Forward Publishing

1990s Meets and establishes enduring friendship with the photographer Aaron Rose

1992 Publishes the first annual Forward Book of Poetry

1994 Founds National Poetry Day

2001 Launches Bedtime Reading Week

2002 March 11-17 Second Bedtime Reading Week

June 15-22 Launches Big Arts Week in association with TimeBank

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