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Putting the accent on discipline

MATTHEW PARRIS TALKS TO PAMELA COLEMAN

Mrs McLeod was my teacher in Standard 2A at Borrowdale Primary School in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. She was a Scot, had an educated Scottish accent, was kindly though stern and had an absolutely fixed view of the world and of right and wrong. She entertained no doubt about any of her values, nor suffered any of her pupils entertaining any doubt.

She was my class teacher for just one year. She taught everything except mathematics, but English was her great love and she was very keen that it should be pronounced properly. She didn't like Rhodesian accents, which luckily I didn't have. She particularly hated the way Rhodesians pronounced the word school - skule. Her discipline was effortless and total. I imagine she had been at the school for many years, she seemed such a fixture.

She looked like a rather trim, grey koala bear: chunky but not fat. She was always very well dressed and carefully made-up, and her hair was always perfect. All the teachers were smart, but she was particularly well groomed. She was a little like Mrs Thatcher - in whose office I worked for two years - in that respect.

Mrs McLeod seemed to me then to be of enormous age, but she was probably only about 45. She had a husband called Jim, who was much more Scottish than she was, and one daughter, Fiona. I never knew Mrs McLeod's first name. Part of the aura that surrounded her was that you didn't know her first name.

She was very keen on drama and reading aloud and recitation, all of which had to be done with exaggerated articulation. I was good at these things and got better at them under her tutelage. I wasn't teacher's pet, though. Mrs McLeod didn't have favourites, but she and I got on well.

She taught me English spelling and grammar and to enjoy reading aloud. She wasn't a visionary, she wasn't inspirational; she simply provided an anchor. She was always there, always the same. She knew the rules and you knew the rules and life was ordered and had a structure to it, and for a little boy whose family was constantly moving around the world, that was important.

My father was an electrical engineer and was posted from country to country. I was born in Johannesburg, but we left when I was about a year old and went to Yorkshire and then to Cyprus before Rhodesia. When I left my school in Cyprus we were just about to learn decimals, and when I reached Borrowdale they had just done them, so I never really learned decimals. I have been trying to get the hang of them ever since.

Mr Moffat, who taught mathematics, was another Scot, as was the other teacher I remember from Borrowdale, Mr Milne, my form teacher after Mrs McLeod. Mr Moffat was quite a martinet, but a good teacher. Mr Milne I also looked up to and admired very much. If anyone complained in his lessons I remember him saying, "My heart pumps custard for you", which we thought was very funny.

Mrs McLeod also had a sense of humour. She was a very ordered and disciplined person, with complete moral certainty about everything - manners, right and wrong, the way words should be pronounced and spelt - and it was all very important that you did everything right. But she also had a great sense of fun.

As a child I had absolutely no interest in games, and a lot of the teachers, particularly the men, were keen on sport and you pleased those teachers by being good at games. I liked Mrs McLeod because she was a believer in things of the mind. I remember her telling me that moral courage was just as important as physical courage. That struck me forcibly at the time, probably because it was something I wanted to hear.

She was an ally. School in southern Africa was very sport-oriented, and things of the mind, especially a love of the English language, were not attainments for which boys were much praised. But Mrs McLeod did praise and esteem those things, and she encouraged me to take pride in being good at those things.

I am the eldest of six and was a very sensible child. I was a bit of a goody-goody. Perhaps Mrs McLeod helped to inculcate the qualities of the goody-goody in me.

In personality she was very different from Mrs Thatcher, who had an abrasiveness and stridency that Mrs McLeod didn't have, but I certainly learnt from Mrs McLeod how to handle strong women.

Parliamentary sketch writer Matthew Parris was Conservative MP for West Derbyshire from 1979 to 1986 when he became presenter of the television programme, Weekend World. From 1977 to 1979 he was on the staff of Margaret Thatcher's office. He is a graduate of Clare College, Cambridge and Yale. A collection of his articles from The Times, I Couldn't Possibly Comment, was published by Robson Books on May 15 TES2 MAY 30 1997

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