Lone adventurer

3rd October 1997 at 01:00

I met Peter Chilver, my best teacher, two years after I left school. I was about 17 and making quite a good living when I spotted an advertisement in my local paper, the Southend Echo, offering private tuition in English language and literature.

I'd left Fairfax School with no qualifications and little formal education, and wanted to better myself. Making money was my passion, yet I realised I didn't have the knowledge or the communication skills that would allow me to mix with everyone. So I answered the ad and went round to Peter Chilver's house, which was quite near to where I lived with my parents and my older sister, Diane, and adopted sister, Bunny.

Peter Chilver worked at the municipal college and was offering private tuition to make a bit of extra cash. We hit it off straight away. He greeted me in a very friendly manner. He was very tall, wiry, slim and clean-shaven - and not too much older than me. He was wearing one of those V-necked sleeveless pullovers favoured by academics. He'd been to Oxford and I was taken with his rich, "cut-glass" speaking voice.

"If one really wants to reach the top in life," he told me, "one has to understand and to be understood. I will teach you." I had lessons at his home twice a week at first and later more frequently. I paid for them myself. I had tremendous help and motivation from my parents to get on in business, but they didn't have much respect for education. Making money and getting on in the world was what they considered important.

I was a willing pupil. At school I'd been a bit of a devil and didn't learn much. I had the impression that the teachers presumed that most of us were thick, and the few bright kids were the exception. I told Peter Chilver of my intention to do something with my life. One of my ambitions was to write fiction. I think Peter took a bit of a shine to me - a little trier wanting to get on.

He began by giving me a list of authors I should read. It included Dickens, D H Lawrence, Huxley and F Scott Fitzgerald. One of the first books he loaned me was George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

He'd quiz me on how much I understood of the sub-texts and hidden meanings and taught me grammar and a bit of elocution. He'd make me repeat some words over and over again until I produced exactly the right vowel tone. He was a natural, instinctive teacher and I thoroughly enjoyed the lessons which continued for about a year. We became friends.

Peter Chilver went on to RADA to become an actor - he was a bit of a Wilfrid Hyde White character. I bumped into him once or twice in London and I saw him on stage. I stayed at his flat where I met the actors Ian McShane and Tom Courtenay, but we lost touch years ago. He taught me a lot and ignited my desire to learn more. Few people have influenced my thinking as much as Peter. Many years after we parted company, someone gave me a book he'd written on English grammar as a memento.

After the story of my rescue off the Australian coast during the Vendee solo round-the-world race hit the media in January, some of my old school friends got in touch again. I met a guy in Perth who was with me at Fairfax School. He said he remembered me as a boy who was always getting into fights.

The teacher I remember best from those days was the headmaster, Mr Day. He was an impressive man, always smartly turned out, and he frightened me. We lived right opposite the school - I could see it from my bedroom window - so of course I was nearly always late. I'd get sent to Mr Day. He was a fair man but he never got to understand me and I never understood him. I remember waiting outside his office feeling jittery because I knew I was going to get the cane. Mr Day would say a few words, walk up and down a bit and then give three whacks on your hand, and that was that.

Another teacher I remember is Mr Smith, an elderly man who I think taught English. At our first encounter he walked into the classroom, picked me out and made me stand in front of the class. Then he took a swing at me and whacked me round the face with his open hand for no reason at all. He then turned to the class and said: "That's a demonstration of what you get if you misbehave. " And the funny thing is that old Smith and I got on all right after that!

He made me head boy of the garden, which had a greenhouse, and from then on I regularly got out of lessons by saying I had to go to the greenhouse because some plants needed attention. Off I'd go to the greenhouse where I'd hidden a bottle of lemonade and a packet of fags.

I don't remember any of my school teachers with affection. What I remember are the threats, the punishments, the slaps around the face, which is sad really. I wasn't good at anything at school. I was a tough little critter, a bit of a lad. School had little impact on me.

Even then, though, I had a thrust for adventure. My best friend, Tony James, and I would talk about sailing round the world together one day. Once we went off to Burnham-on-Sea with the aim of buying a little boat and setting off. We had it all worked out, but it didn't happen - then. We also tried to fit out a little van to go across the Sahara desert, but somehow that plan also went by the board.

Tony Bullimore's dramatic rescue from his upturned boat Exide Challenger in the Southern Ocean in January projected the 56-year-old adventurer into the world spotlight. For five days he sheltered in an air pocket in the upturned hull, 1,500 miles from land, suffering from hypothermia, dehydration and frostbite, while the Australian Navy searched for him. Two weeks after his rescue he was back on the water, despite the entreaties of his Jamaican-born wife Lalel to whom he has been married for 30 years. His book Saved was published by Little Brown in August

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