My best teacher

My first "best teacher" was Mrs Taylor who taught me to read and to knit and do cross-stitch. I was five and I can still remember the excitement of reading about Mr Lobb, who did pretty dull things like going to the shops and having tea, in words of about four letters. There were only nine of us in the class at the little village school in Farnborough in the Berkshire Downs. Mrs Taylor was tall and thin and stood with her back to the huge stove in the corner of the classroom. She was very enthusiastic and her lessons were jolly. We sang a lot of songs. I remember one that went: "Down in the valley grandma used to tell there was a chalet with a quaint old wishing wellI" My next favourite teacher was Sister Sylvia, the sprightly art mistress at a convent school called Great Oaks in Goring and Streatley. She was incredibly patient and gave me confidence that I could paint. I remember when I was about 11 taking a whole term to produce an oil painting of a geranium in a terracotta pot. She was a brilliant artist herself. I still have a wonderful coloured drawing she did in my autograph book of rabbits dressed up in clothes under a tree, as good as anything by Beatrix Potter.

At St Mary's, Wantage, there was a history teacher called Miss Phillips, who fired me up about history to the extent that I am still fascinated by every aspect of the 18th century. She was an enormous woman with a theatrical delivery who made stories of battles come to life - her animated teaching style was in sharp contrast to 90 per cent of the other teachers, who were deadly dull. Judith Keppell, who won the jackpot on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, was in my class and I think the reason she got that important history question right about Eleanor of Aquitaine being the wife of Henry II was because Miss Phillips imbued it into her.

There was also a very good art mistress at St Mary's called Miss Wimperis, who once wrote on one of my reports, "Candida works quickly and well". My dad (John Betjeman) was so proud of that comment that he repeated it forever more. My school reports were always terrible. I was a bad influence in class. I enjoyed breaking rules. My father was a school governor, which was useful because we got butter instead of margarine after I complained to him. He hated margarine himself. He was quite famous when I was at St Mary's and a lot of the teachers were in love with him so they sucked up to me, hoping to get to him through me.

In general, my memories of school are of wonderful friends and general evasion of everything else, though I was quite good at French and games. I was in the first lacrosse team.

After O-levels I was packed off to a tutorial college in London, which was disastrous because I didn't turn up for lessons. I took a secretarial course and worked for Richard Ingrams at Private Eye where I stapled together the first copy of the magazine. Richard still reads all the books I write and corrects them for me like a schoolteacher. Mark Boxer, for whom I wrote my first book (English Cottages), was another fantastic teacher. He was a perfectionist who made me rewrite and rewrite until I got it exactly right.

All these people have been inspirational, but I have learned most from my parents. My father taught me to be confident in doing my own thing and to trust my eye, that it was important, for instance, to know that you liked a painting, not who it was by. He was constantly saying "Well done", and I believed him. My mother taught me about wild flowers and to cook, and passed on to me her love and understanding of horses. She took me on art tours of Italy as a grumpy teenager. They both stood up for what they believed in and taught me to be brave in my convictions, and I'm not a herd follower as a result.

Writer Candida Lycett Green was talking to Pamela Coleman


1942 Born in Dublin, where father John Betjeman is serving as press attache

1954-58 Attends St Mary's school, Wantage

1969 First book Hadrian and the Hedgehog published

1970-73 Writes column for Private Eye

1984 Publication of English Cottages

1985-87 Tatler travel editor

1987 onwards Vogue contributing editor

1992 onwards English Heritage commissioner

1993 and 1995 Edits and introduces book of Betjeman's letters

1984 Publication of The Garden at Highgrove (written with Prince Charles)

July 2002 Publication of Over the Hills and Far Away (stories of travels around England on horseback) following treatment for breast cancer; speaks at Edinburgh literary festival; speaks at Cheltenham literary festival

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

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