Monty Don

25th February 2005 at 00:00
I was kicked out of primary school for putting nettles down girls' knickers and getting more black marks in one term than anyone else had in their entire school career.

So at the age of eight I became a boarder a little earlier than planned. I went to an all-boys school, which no longer exists, with the spectacular name of Bigshotte. The headmaster had been a boy at the school in the 1920s and it hadn't changed from his day. The curriculum was based on Latin, Greek, French, maths, English, history, geography and divinity. There was no science; everything was geared towards the common entrance exam.

Classes were small; the biggest was 12, and it wasn't unusual to be in a group of eight. We were kept busy from morning until night. It was harsh - we were always hungry and cold - but we had 60 acres of woods to play in.

Ian McWhinnie, who taught English and drama, was different from the other teachers. He brought a tape recorder into class and we listened to radio plays he'd recorded. He would play a piece of music and get us to paint a picture of the music and then write a poem about the picture. I took to his teaching style, and Mr McWhinnie nurtured and encouraged me. I wrote poetry and entered national competitions and won them. He put on a play every term and I took part. We did TSEliot's Murder in the Cathedral and I was Beckett.

With hindsight, Mr McWhinnie wasn't a particularly nice man. He had a terrible temper and could be a bully; screaming and shouting at little boys, reducing them to tears. He didn't do it to me because I was his favourite. He was incredibly involved and passionate. His great gift as a teacher was that he took us all seriously. He asked what you thought about things and gave the impression that he really wanted to know. If you did a painting he'd put it on the wall and bring in people to look at it. He was the first person to teach me that expressing yourself through writing, music, painting or acting was something to be treasured.

I then went to Malvern, which I loathed from day one. Jeremy Paxman went there too, and I know that he hated it too. I never engaged with the school and the school never engaged with me. I stayed for seven terms and then, by mutual agreement, left. I got seven O-levels despite them and went to sixth-form college to do my A-levels. My results were appalling. I hitchhiked through France with my guitar, and round about Marseille decided to go back and retake English, entirely for my own pride. I worked on a building site and studied in the evening. I got an A grade and an S-level and then went off to France again.

While I was in France I decided I'd like to go to Cambridge. I got into Magdalen College to read English. I was taught by a wonderful man called Arthur Sale. I was 21 and he was 70, and I adored him. Arthur was a poet, an old-fashioned bohemian from a working-class background in Nottingham. He was funny and iconoclastic. He'd met Eliot and corresponded with DH Lawrence. He seemed to know many leading literary figures, but he never boasted.

Arthur's standards were astonishingly high. If there was one tiny error of punctuation or grammar, he'd pounce. He wouldn't allow any sloppiness. I used to sit writing my essays for him with sweat pouring off me. When I read him my work he'd somehow manage to make me feel wonderful, while at the same time telling me that my essay had just scratched the surface and there was much more to learn, a lot of which he would tell me and the rest I would be inspired to go and find out.

Arthur and I shared a love of wild flowers, the countryside and walking, as well as poetry and music. I left university planning to write fiction and probably work on a farm to finance it. He thought that was great.

Gardener and television presenter Monty Don was talking to Pamela Coleman


1955 Born in West Germany

1960-63 Attends Quidhampton, a private primary school in Basingstoke

1963-69 Bigshotte school, Crowthorne, Berks

1969-71 Malvern College, Worcestershire

1976-79 Magdalen College, Cambridge

1989 First TV appearance as gardening correspondent for ITV's This Morning

1990 First book, The Prickotty Bush, published. Others include Fork to Fork (1999) and The Complete Gardener (2003)

1994-present Gardening correspondent for the Observer

2003-present Main presenter on Gardeners' World for BBC TV. New series begins on February 25, BBC2, 8.30pm

2004 Publication of autobiographical The Jewel Garden (Hodder Stoughton, pound;20)

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