I remember my first lesson in Peter Way's pink classroom, which he told us, pink is the colour of concentration

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
I remember my first lesson in Peter Way's pink classroom, which he told us, pink is the colour of contentration;My best teacher;Interview;Andrew Motion;People;Features arts

My family was largely unbookish. I grew up on the borders of Essex and Suffolk. My father was a brewer, as his father and his father's father had been, but there was never any pressure on me to go into the family business. Because I liked birds and trees, my parents thought I might go to work for the RSPB or the Forestry Commission. There was certainly no expectation that I would live a life that had anything to do with books.

I struggled in school. I was not very smart and I was frightened most of the time. At seven I was sent away to a prep school I detested. There was a great deal of beating. We were beaten for minor misdemeanours, for work, for major misdemeanours. You name it, we got beaten for it. Even though I was a law-abiding child, I got my share of beating because I occasionally did things such as run down a corridor. Sometimes I went on midnight walks, but luckily never got caught.

There were two kinds of beating. There was beating at the end of the day in our dormitories where the head came round and slippered people, and there was "the swish" (cane) administered in his study. This was in the early Sixties, but the regime was Dickensian.

Because school was so frightening, I found it incredibly difficult to think straight, but somehow I scraped into Radley and once there I could hardly believe the difference. The man who changed my life was Peter Way, my housemaster. He didn't teach me for the first two years, even though English was his subject, and I scrabbled through my O-levels. My brain was still deeply asleep and I got the bottom grade but one in all subjects except English.

When it came to A-levels I had a genuine "road to Damascus" moment. Thanks to Peter Way, school was a great place to be and I couldn't wait to get back after the holidays.

He was such a nice man: quiet, modest, withdrawn and shy. We immediately got on extraordinarily well. We still write to each other regularly and meet when we can. It's no exaggeration to say I love him. I liked his way of teaching and never felt threatened by him.

I remember clearly my first lesson in his pink classroom, which he'd had specially decorated because, he told us, pink is the colour of concentration. We studied the poem by Thomas Hardy, "I look into my glass and view my wasting skin", in which Hardy regrets that he has a young man's desires, fears and yearnings in an old man's body.

It was an odd poem to give to a group of testosterone-filled 15-year-olds, but it went through me like a spear. It was quite extraordinary. I immediately thought not only that I wanted to read more of this, but also that I wanted to write something like it. Peter Way loved poetry and taught it with tremendous spirit. He encouraged us to read permissively and I soon found I couldn't stop talking about poetry and had to rein myself in because the other boys would think I had gone mad.

I could have been Peter's favourite pupil - or his nightmare. He introduced me to Wordsworth and Larkin and lent me his own copies of books. Then, in the middle of my A-levels, I was ill and had a year at home and our relationship was more or less a correspondence course. Soon after I returned to school, my mother, to whom I was very close, had a bad riding accident and was unconscious for three years. When it looked as though she was not going to recover, Peter encouraged me to write about it, which was a catharsis. A lot of my best poems have been about my mum.

He guided my writing very, very gently and I won the school poetry prize three times. I went on to read English at Oxford, got a first and taught at Hull University, where I got to know Philip Larkin.

As time goes by I realise even more how much I owe to Peter Way. He used to play us recordings of poets such as TS Eliot, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath reading their work - and this was the seed of the Poetry Archive.

Poet laureate Andrew Motion was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1952 Born in London

1957-59 Attends the Barn, Much Hadham, near Bishop's Stortford

1959-64 Maidwell Hall, Northampton

1964-70 Radley College

1973 Studies English at University College Oxford

1977-80 Lectures in English at Hull University

1978 Publication of poetry collection, The Pleasure Steamers

1980 Becomes editor of Poetry Review

1982 Editorial director at Chatto and Windus

1993 Biography of Philip Larkin wins Whitbread prize

1995 Professor of creative writing at Hull

1999 Appointed Poet laureate

2005, November 30 Launch of Poetry Archive: www.poetryarchive.org.uk

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