5th November 2004 at 00:00
In the middle of a storm, Miss Wilson-Smith would say to girls in the prep school: 'Do not worry, that is merely God moving his furniture'

Portrait by Jason Bell

I grew up in Sunderland and went to just one school, Sunderland church high. It was an eccentric, small public school for girls. What it lacked in academic excellence, which it certainly did, it made up for by giving us great confidence. We're bossy boots, the lot of us. It also imbued us with a sense that we had to achieve things. It had a kind of missionary zeal about it.

It also has a wonderful claim to fame, which only came out a few years ago, partly thanks to a story in The TES. In the main hall there were boards with the names of the girls who'd gone off to Oxford and Cambridge, and there in the late 1920s was the name of Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who came from South Shields.

She went on to work in publishing and was asked back by the school for its 50th anniversary in 1934. She wrote a poem about the school which she divided into three parts: past, present and future. A couple of years later she met and married a writer called George Orwell. The verse she wrote was "1884, 1934, 1984". So my school produced, we think, the title of one of the 20th century's greatest books.

It was a very small school, and we are all still close because we went through together from four to 18. I'm still very close to half a dozen of them. Among the teachers, there were a great number of unclaimed treasures.

It was post-war and the older ones were very much traditional maiden ladies who had devoted themselves to teaching. Some of them were wonderfully eccentric.

In the middle of a thunderstorm, Miss Wilson-Smith would say to nine and 10-year-olds in the prep school: "Girls, do not worry, that is merely God moving his furniture." She wore a pinafore dress and threw chalk at people.

Our teachers didn't have first names, and we wouldn't dare ask. She was "Miss Wilson-Smith" to us, never "Miss".

There was also Mrs Linton, a French teacher. She was very elegant and had style. She had lived in France and spoke French beautifully. She showed us a bit of life outside school too because she was active in drama.

None of us had a clue about the outside world. We weren't really expected to have careers, except the brain boxes. This was the Sixties and we were the generation on the cusp of the huge change that came through the expansion of new universities and the advent of women's liberation. It's curious to realise that you've lived through it and been part of it, because you don't feel it at the time.

I had no sense of direction and ended up going to Newcastle University to do Scandinavian studies, for no reason whatsoever. The professor was extraordinary. I can see him now: a broad man, with a great moustache, a jolly florid face and a tweed jacket, dressed as if he was going fishing.

That was Professor Duncan Mennie, professor of German and Scandinavian. He said: "Miss Adie, you will be reading Swedish with German subsidiary." The next four years of my life were decided in four seconds. I couldn't have challenged him because I had absolutely no idea what was on offer, not a clue. But I never regretted it.

Professor Mennie was wonderful. His students were empty barrels into which he tipped just about everything he could find. We studied the history of horses once, and he did a series of lectures on espionage and propaganda.

He was just a repository of information. It was fantastic because you got a tremendously broad education.

I'm a great believer in study for study's sake. It makes you think and pushes you into a world you wouldn't naturally take part in. It disciplines the mind.

Kate Adie is a patron of StoryQuest 2004, a festival of storytelling for children created by the Arts and Kids Foundation:

She was talking to Matthew Brown

The story so far

1945 Born in Sunderland

1949 Sunderland Church High School

1963 Reads Scandinavian studies at Newcastle University

1968-79 Joins BBC Radio Durham as a studio technician. Stays in BBC radio as a producer then director, before becoming a local TV reporter

1979 Joins BBC TV News in London

1989 Becomes BBC's chief correspondent. Reports from Beijing on Tiananmen Square massacre. Covers Gulf War, and conflicts in Kosovo, Rwanda and Sierra Leone

1993 Awarded OBE

2003 Publishes autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers

2004 Presents From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4

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