Skip to main content

My best teacher

All Bill Bowen had to do was lower his beautiful, melodious voice, bring about a slight shift in timbre, and the children's hair would stand on end.

Bill Bowen, a miner's son from South Wales, taught me at Wheatfields junior school in St Albans between the ages of nine and 10. He was deputy head and had been in the school for many years by the time I was in his class, and was very secure in his environment. All he had to do was lower his beautiful, melodious voice, bring about a slight shift in timbre, and the children's hair would stand on end. I hadn't been taught by a man before, and he made a great impression on me.

He was the model of a cultured adult with an interest in all things artistic. He embodied a mixture of gravitas and grace, and combined very serious purpose with great lightness of touch. He was bursting with a passion for theatre, opera and music, which he loved to share with any child who wanted to experience it. I remember the whole school going to see Tom Baker as Long John Silver in Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre in London.

In assembly, he would persuade 120 children to sit still and listen to classical music, usually something child-friendly such as Rossini's "William Tell Overture" or bits of Mozart. Once the record was on, he adopted a very particular pose to listen, leaning forward with his eyes tight shut, which one of the boys used to mimic. He was always extremely theatrical and did things that no other teacher would do. When he took us for hymn practice every week, he used to thrust and stab with his baton at the "foul fiends and hobgoblins" in "To Be a Pilgrim".

Mr Bowen was largely responsible for me becoming confident about my writing. At seven, I had written an Enid Blytonesque story, and when I was writing stories in class I always asked for extra paper. In Mr Bowen's class I got used to the idea that this was an area where I felt comfortable and could do well. He was just the right teacher for me at that time. As another way of encouraging us, he had a very complex scheme of marking with many gradations, and it made you want to get E for Excellent, which he would write with a beautiful flourish, or even E2 or E3. Crucially, he would always push me that bit further in an unexpected direction. When he was pleased with a story I'd written, he encouraged me to read it to the entire school.

We did a project on The Jungle Book and wrote our own Mowgli stories, and I remember him telling us that the Disney film was all very good in its way, but not a patch on Kipling. He liked us to read anything that interested us but we had to analyse every book we read. I wrote a critique of The Lord of the Rings when I was nine. I also loved Douglas Hill's superb science-fiction adventure stories, and Diana Wynne Jones.

At St Albans school, I started to move away from creative writing and towards criticism. John Mole, my English teacher, was also the right teacher at the right time. I studied my first Shakespeare - Macbeth - with him and really began to understand what the poetry said. He also introduced me to Philip Larkin. It's really because of him that I decided to read English at university rather than history; I had learned in his classes to enjoy close literary analysis.

Mr Mole also seemed to have the sort of well-rounded life I could see myself enjoying in the future; as well as a teacher he was a poet and a jazz musician, his wife was an artist and his house was full of books and paintings, and still is. I live two streets away from him now, and just across the park from Mr Bowen, who came to my wedding.

Children's author Jonathan Stroud was talking to Geraldine Brennan. On World Book Day (March 4) he will be taking part in events and signings at Huddersfield Children's Bookshop (37-39 Lidget Street, Lindley, Huddersfield HD3 3JF) from 1pm onwards. For more information contact Sonia Benster on 01484 658013

The story so far

1970 Born in Bedford

1978-89 Attends Wheatfields junior school, St Albans, then St Albans school

1989-92 Studies English literature at University of York

1993-2001 Works for children's publishers Walker Books and Kingfisher, mainly as an editor on non-fiction books, helping to create Walker's History News series

1996 Publishes The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood, illustrated by Cathy Gale

1999 Publishes first novel, Buried Fire, with The Bodley Head

2003 Signs worldwide publishing deal for The Amulet of Samarkand, first book in The Bartimaeus Trilogy (Doubleday). A film of the book, directed by Anthony Minghella, starts production in 2005

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