Alan Johnson

8th June 2007 at 01:00
The Education Secretary tells Biddy Passmore he owes a special thank-you to his former English teacher.

I passed the 11-plus and was one of only two kids from Bevington Road Junior School in Notting Hill to go on to Sloane Grammar School, just off the King's Road in Chelsea. Did I really want to go? It was a big wrench and it was a long way, but the alternative was a dreadful school called Isaac Newton and Mum was determined I wouldn't go there.

Sloane Grammar was quite big and daunting and I spent a lot of time away from it in the first year for various reasons. (His father had left a few years earlier.) My mother had a heart complaint and was sometimes in hospital. I don't know, something hit me in the eye in my first year and I played on it. I didn't really want to go to school.

After Mum died, when I was 12, parents' evenings were attended by my sister, who was only two years older than me. Teachers would put nice things in my reports, saying I hadn't done very well but in the circumstances...

Mr Pepper, our social worker, was an absolute hero and provided all the pastoral care I needed. He fought for me and my sister to stay together rather than going into care and moved us from Notting Hill to the Wilberforce Estate in Battersea, which was much closer to school.

When I was 13, Peter Carling came to teach English at the school. He was quite a different character from the orthodox Sloane teacher. His hair was a bit longer and he wore a tweed jacket, not a suit - he was a bit bohemian. He had a good sense of humour and liked our sense of humour. Me and my mates were keen on The Goon Show and he understood that. He took us to the theatre to see Oblomov with Spike Milligan and Half a Sixpence.

I was already a reader. We were a household without books but my mother had insisted we join the Ladbroke Grove library at a very young age and I'd read and reread Shane by Jack Schaefer and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

I was crazy about Leslie Charteris and Agatha Christie at that stage and Mr Carling really enthused me to read other books.

He introduced me to Geoffrey Household and Ray Bradbury and got me started on John Buchan. Then I got into George Orwell. He explained the political message of Animal Farm to us. And poetry - he took the whole class through Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth.

One day, he gave me some money and sent me off down the King's Road on my own to pick out "some books you think the class might be interested in reading". I can't remember what I bought - one of the books may have been Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying because I modelled myself on one of the characters, smoking Woodbines and so on. But the fact that he'd asked me to select them, the fact that he'd sent me down the King's Road in school time - I thought that was just wonderful.

Peter also encouraged me to write. I was determined to be a writer or a musician. I wrote some short stories about characters called Mr Midnight and Inspector Andrews, which I kept for ages in this little suitcase; they may still be lying around in some attic.

I decided to leave school when I was 15. We had no money and I thought we were going to be rock stars, Andrew, my friend, and I. I had been given an electric guitar and thought I could make it as a musician. But whatever happened I certainly didn't want to stay in school. I was only interested in three subjects: English, history and economics.

Mr Carling was disappointed I was leaving, but Dr Henry, the head, wasn't sorry. He'd caned me twice, brutally. I can't remember why. I was a well-mannered child, well brought up by my mother. But I got sent home because I wore my hair too long (it was not much longer than it is now) and I got sent home because I wore red socks.

Initially, I felt liberated by leaving school and went to work, first at Remington Electric Shavers, then stacking shelves at Tesco.

By 18, when I had two children and had started working as a postman, I looked at the other kids going off to university and thought, 'I would like to have gone too.'

I didn't keep in touch with Peter or anybody else from school. But a former pupil told me recently he went off to be a headteacher at another school two years after I left. I would love to know what happened to him. What would I like to say to him? "Thanks."

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, was talking to Biddy Passmore

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