Jack Higgins

1st February 2008 at 00:00
An early story in the style of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons impressed this writer's teacher and set him on the road to bestsellerdom.

Towards the end of the war, I attended Roundhay School in an affluent suburb of Leeds. My family weren't well off, far from it, but my mother worked in a shop in the area and we lived in a flat above it. Like many boys' grammar schools at that time, Roundhay was run along similar lines to a public school. Luckily, in those days the council handed out money to the poor, so you could buy your blazer and tie and not look too out of place.

Traditionally, the teachers had always been men, but because so many were away in the war, the school had no choice but to employ women, one of whom was Dorothy Quarton, my English teacher.

Having women around caused a bit of a stir at first, but although Dorothy was probably quite young, and she was certainly feminine, she never resorted to using her femininity to get her way. She was very neat and precise, with a quiet authority. Discipline was never a problem for her. On the very rare occasions I recall somebody acting up in one of her lessons, she always managed to shame them quite easily.

Before Dorothy arrived, English lessons had been very dry. We had to write essays on things such as why you should behave yourself at school, but Dorothy encouraged us to use our imagination. On one particular occasion she told us to write a composition loosely based on a book we liked.

I was very keen on the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, about these upper-class teenagers who go sailing on the Norfolk Broads or in the Lake District, so I wrote two or three pages describing their adventures when they were caught in a storm on Lake Windermere and washed up on an island.

Dorothy gave me 1010 for my story and as I was leaving the class, she called me back. "You know Harry (Higgins' real name is Harry Patterson)," she said. "I really enjoyed that. I think you could be a writer." I can't remember my reaction, but one thing I know for sure is that until that point, becoming a writer was something I would never have considered in a million years. We didn't even have any books at home. I left school not long after that and did various things, including a spell in the Army. However, Dorothy's words must have been gnawing away at the back of my mind because I started to write bits and pieces, entering short story competitions in newspapers, that kind of thing.

Eventually I became a teacher myself and got a job at a spanking new comprehensive school in Leeds called Allerton Grange where, to my astonishment, Dorothy was the senior mistress.

She remembered everything about me, although I don't think it was because I'd been particularly special. Dorothy was just one of those teachers who remembered all their pupils. Not surprisingly, she was an excellent colleague and still passionate about her subject. English, drama, poetry - these things were of great importance to her.

I enjoyed teaching, but I was furiously writing in my spare time and Sad Wind from the Sea, my first book, was published in 1959 while I was still at Allerton Grange.

It wasn't a great work of literature, it was just a popular novel, but it seemed amazing to me, a real hardcover book with my name on the front. I can remember giving Dorothy a copy in the staffroom and she was thrilled. I said to her: "It always stayed in my mind, you telling me I could be a writer. I've got a lot to thank you for." She immediately pooh-poohed the idea and replied: "No, Harry. This is all down to you." But it was Dorothy who first put the idea in my head.

Jack Higgins has written 66 novels, many of which have been made into films, the most famous being The Eagle has Landed, starring Michael Caine. His books have sold more than 250 million copies and been translated into 55 languages. He was talking to Hilary Whitney.

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