Julia Donaldson

9th August 2013 at 01:00
The Gruffalo creator drew great inspiration from a primary teacher who loved heraldry and handwriting

Mr Davie was my teacher for my last two years at New End Primary School in Camden, North London, in the late 1950s. He wasn't a trendy young teacher. He seemed quite old to us (baldish with a slightly hooked nose and sallow skin), although he probably wasn't really. He had beautiful italic handwriting that he painstakingly taught us how to do. We were enthused about getting Osmiroid fountain pens with special italic nibs.

He was also passionate about heraldry and I remember spending weeks moulding shields and crests out of plasticine, which we rubbed with the back of drawing pins to create the desired shine. This might sound irrelevant to the mainstream subjects, but somehow we picked up a lot of history and language along the way. I remember him explaining that the heraldic red was not called red but "gules", which came from the French word "gueule", meaning an animal's mouth, and that led on to the Normans and their effect on the language.

Although we had the 11-plus exam, looking back it seemed to be a time of great freedom - for children and teachers. I remember walking to Brownies and ballet lessons with my sister, who was two years younger, as my mother was often helping my father, who contracted polio when I was just 6.

Mr Davie loved heraldry and handwriting, but he had also invented a character called Percy Prune, who was a sort of buffoon, and was always teaching us things by making up stories about him. He also told us the plots of Shakespeare's plays and taught us spelling through a game where we all stood up and lined the classroom walls, taking turns to spell a word such as "deceive" or "picturesque" on the blackboard. If you got it right, you moved up to overtake anyone who'd got it wrong. After several rounds, we were sifted into an order and the 10 best spellers got house points. (The four houses were named after Keats, Constable, Ferrier and Nightingale, who had all lived in Hampstead.) Not at all politically correct, and maybe not so much fun for the poorer spellers, but actually I think we all ended up pretty expert.

My best friend and I loved writing stories and plays, and slavishly copied the style of our favourite author, Richmal Crompton, who wrote the William books, making our characters say things "lamely" or "scornfully". We didn't get this from Mr Davie, but he was very impressed and encouraged us and told our parents that we would grow up to be writers. He didn't try to change our style or channel us down some more standard route.

One of my favourite memories from school is hearing a teacher reading the poem New Shoes and being able to recite it verbatim afterwards, and I was only 7. I subsequently did a poetry reading for the school every speech day.

Throughout much of my adult life, I have found myself recalling something Mr Davie said or taught us. On one occasion, he likened calculating maths to doing the washing up - best tackled all in one go, not bit by bit. When I was at secondary school, after my exams, I did a week's teaching practice at New End, in an infant class. Mr Davie was still there, but less charismatic in the staffroom than I remembered him being in the classroom.

Julia Donaldson is a champion of the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge 2013, which every year inspires 750,000 children aged 4-11 to read six library books over the summer holidays. This year's theme is Creepy House. Visit summerreadingchallenge.org.uk to find out more. She was talking to Jo Knowsley.


Born: 16 September 1948

Education: New End Primary School, Camden, London; Camden School for Girls, London; University of Bristol; honorary doctor of letters at the University of Bristol and the University of Glasgow

Career: Author, playwright and performer; Children's Laureate, 2011-13.

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