Miss Hortin-Smith by Joanna Lumley

27th February 2015 at 00:00
The Absolutely Fabulous star recalls a flamboyant, cape-wearing English teacher named `Hooter', with sticky-out teeth and the qualities of a wizard

Most of my teachers at St Mary's Convent School in Hastings were nuns, but English teacher Miss Hortin-Smith was an ordinary person.

She had piercing blue eyes, sticky-out teeth and hair that looked as though she had cut it herself in the dark with a pair of scissors. She used to wear a huge cape that looked like a gardening rug, which she tied around her shoulders. She was an odd creature with the qualities of a wizard. I absolutely adored her. We called her Hooter.

I fell under her spell at 11, which was when I went to the school to board. I was an army brat and my parents were in Malaya, so they sent me to school in England.

I was predisposed to love books because my family read at every opportunity, but the way Hooter taught poems and literature made them essential parts of our lives. Jane Austen sounded like an old fogey to us girls, because we were listening to Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, yet when Hooter read to us in her flamboyant and terribly showy way, the words came alive. I could see the extraordinary places such as Pemberley and feel the Bennets' dirty, shabby petticoats.

I remember we were reading a poem called The Diverting History of John Gilpin and Hooter was banging on about metre and beat. Eventually, to get the point across, she turned a chair around and mounted it backwards. Then, using the chair like an old wooden horse, she galloped out of the room and down the corridor. We could hear her shouting and this clackety-clack and we thought, "She's gone off her rocker." Then she turned around and galloped back in with her cape flying. She was fantastic.

She was also perceptive and terribly kind. She never snubbed our ideas or belittled us. If she was marking an essay, she would poke about in it and find the good parts. I had an able brain and skipped a year, but I was a useless scholar. I had a photographic memory that gave me the ability to gather up information very fast. But when it came to real learning, to swotting away in my study and extrapolating facts, I couldn't be bothered so I never did any work.

I was always being gated for being cheeky, or punished for sneaking out to meet the town's boys who would teach us how to shoot air rifles. The day girls smuggled in some mice once. Mine was called Reepicheep after the mouse in the Chronicles of Narnia. At night I kept him in my underwear drawer, but in the daytime I would put him in my blazer pocket and bring him into class. I'd put him down my neck and he would run down my back and along my sleeve. Then the rumour came that the mice were going to be caught and gassed, so one night we let them loose in the school kitchen where they bred like mad.

I loved school, as the nuns were kindly and I made a lot of friends. There was no real pressure to pass exams; other things seemed to be more important, such as becoming a rounded person.

Nevertheless, I left at 17 because I wanted to run wild in the world, speak French and drive an open-top car. I didn't keep in touch with Hooter. I was a thankless little schoolgirl and it wasn't until much later that I realised how much I owed her. My love of the arts was inherent in me but the flames were fanned by Hooter.

Joanna Lumley was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. She is a patron of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for equality and diversity lessons in schools to combat prejudice and bullying. For more information about the foundation, to receive email bulletins or to make a donation, visit www.petertatchellfoundation.org

Sweetie darling

Joanna Lumley

Born 1 May 1946, Srinagar, India

Education Mickledene School, Kent; St Mary's Convent School, Hastings

Career Actor and human rights activist. Notable roles include Purdey in The New Avengers and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous


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