My best teacher

The story so far

1943 Born in Kingston-upon-Thames

1954-58 Attends Pelham secondary modern school, South Wimbledon

1959-62 Trainee reporter on Merton and Morden News

1962 Joins EMI press office

1970 Sets up own PR company

1975 Represents Frank Sinatra in the UK

1989 Breaks first 'kiss and tell' story about Pamella Bordes, House of Commons researcher

2001 Sets up 'Sophiegate': Countess of Wessex unwittingly gives candid interview to a News of the World reporter

2002 Assists in overturning gagging order stopping publication of story about footballer Gary Flitcroft

I would grasp the basics in the first five minutes and spend the rest of the lesson mucking about. I was easily bored.

I was a "disruptive influence" at school. I was not remotely academic and spent as little time as possible in the classroom. I was good at sport so I often escaped lessons because I'd be off representing the school at cricket, football, swimming and so on. When I was in class I would grasp the basics in the first five minutes and then my concentration would drift away and I'd spend the rest of the time mucking about. I was easily bored. I often got sent out. The headmaster would see me standing outside the classroom door and say, "Oh, it's you again, Clifford."

The teachers did their best. I have no one to blame but myself for my lack of academic achievement. If my teachers remember me at all, it is probably as somebody who had too much confidence for his own good. I was always fighting. Being the youngest of four and having two elder brothers, I was used to scrapping with people stronger and bigger than me. I was always in the thick of things and very competitive. I still am. I got away with a lot, but sometimes I was caught and was given the cane, and if Mum found out she'd give me a clip round the ear as well. I left school as soon as I could, at 15, with no formal qualifications.

I got my confidence from Mum and Dad, and from Dad I also inherited a love of music. He was a classical pianist and from an early age I was listening to Chopin and Rachmaninov, though I also liked pop music. When I got a job on the local paper as a trainee reporter, I started a record column just to get free records so I could open a disco.

I was 19 when I went to work for the person who, apart from my parents, has taught me the most. Syd Gillingham was chief press officer at the record company, EMI. He is very straight and honest and you don't meet many of those. He is also very perceptive and doesn't suffer fools, which is a quality I admire, particularly in the entertainment industry which is full of much to do about nothing. Syd realised that I work best on my own, doing my own thing my own way. He never told me what to do, it was just "Off you go". The first act I handled was The Beatles.

Syd was calm and authoritative in his dealings with stars. He knew what he was doing. His philosophy was that they might be famous actors or singers but they don't know our game; we do, and they need it. He led by example and stood out because most press officers in record companies in those days were sycophants. Syd was never like that and people respected him for it. I've never sucked up to anyone. I'm not capable. I go to the other extreme. I was never star struck. Within a few weeks of meeting John Lennon, we had our first fight. He took a pop at me over something silly and one thing led to another. He was as good as gold to work with after that. John was the Beatle I most admired. We shared a similar sense of humour.

It was a rollercoaster time in pop music. People like Cliff Richard and Adam Faith were coming through, and we also had Motown on the label. I never had to work with anyone I didn't like. Syd let me have the pick of the bunch and when he left to set up his own company I went with him. We worked together for two years before I launched out on my own.

As well as giving me opportunities, Syd taught me the importance of looking after contacts and making time for people. I regularly have students coming to me wanting help with their dissertations. I run a happy office and that's down to Syd, too. His was a happy office with no threats, no bullying, no shouting. Syd is about 15 years older than me and has retired but we are great friends and regularly go for a fish and chip supper together.

Publicist Max Clifford was talking to Pamela Coleman

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