My best teacher

Harvey McGavin

At Vernon Holme preparatory school in Kent, was a teacher named Mr Cornish. He had served in the navy during the Second World War as a torpedo officer and considered teaching a logical career progression. He taught us history, and as soon as we moved on to ancient Greece it became clear what his passion was. He introduced me to The Iliad and The Odyssey when I was eight, and I became hooked on the adventures and heroism of the Greek warriors.

When I moved to Kent College at 11, I started my formal Latin education under Gordon Rodway. He was a teacher of the old school, complete with tweed jacket and leather elbow patches. He had an amazing voice - like Richard Burton, but deeper - and held us spellbound whenever he digressed into a lecture on the Roman world. With great rhetorical style, accompanied by sweeping gestures of his bear-like arms, he told us of the terrible wars Rome fought with Carthage, and taught us to imagine the gritty reality of what such a war might be like. He inspired my interest in the Roman army. His lessons were unforgettable. Unfortunately, I had to leave after the first year and that was my last contact with him.

In 1975, I began at Newport grammar in Essex. My new Latin teacher, Reg Nash, was a pretty dry character. He hardly emerged from behind his desk, and delivered his lessons in a demanding fashion, with killer sarcasm when it was deserved. Reg also had a consuming interest in the Roman world and became animated when discussing Roman politics and culture. He took a party of us to see the Pompei AD79 exhibition which was on in London. I came face to face with the artefacts of the ancient world, and the Roman people became that much more real to me.

At the same time, I was a fan of Hollywood epics such as Cleopatra and Fall of the Roman Empire. I wanted more of this, and found little fiction relating to the era. Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth is still one of my favourite novels. Her description of life in the Roman army was regrettably brief and left me with a craving for a more expansive novel on the legions.

I had wanted to be a writer from an early age and began my first serious attempts at novel writing after graduating from the University of East Anglia. I gave up after a few years - having failed to attract any publishers for my detective series set in the Bahamas. It was then that my father introduced me to Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, and I was hooked. Historical fiction was what I wanted to write, and with my knowledge of the Roman world, that would be the best place to set my work.

One of the people who had a big influence on my writing was Mike Heyhoe, a tutor on my teacher training course. He was a brilliant English teacher and I met him at just the right moment. Despite my reservations about the profession, he sold me on the idea by his inspirational example. I showed him some of my early efforts at creative writing and he was very encouraging. Mike had also developed a vast range of techniques for developing creative writing skills, and generously shared them. I was very sad when he died a few years ago - Mike got so much out of teaching and gave so much to those he taught.

Historical novelist and media studies lecturer Simon Scarrow was talking to Harvey McGavin

The story so far

1962 Born in Nigeria, where father worked as a banker

1968-72 Lived in Hong Kong

1982-1992 Degree, research and teacher training at University of East Anglia

1992-94 First teaching job at Costessey high school, Norwich, in English and media studies

1994-2000 Media studies head at East Norfolk sixth-form college

1998 Writes first draft of Under the Eagle

1999 Headline agrees a three-book deal

2000 Under the Eagle published, sells out in less than two months; American and Spanish rights sold within a week of publication; moves to City College, Norwich, as media studies lecturer

2001 Paperback of Under the Eagle published, enters top 10 fastest selling new books (BookSeller); The Eagle's Conquest published this month

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Harvey McGavin

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