Mr Barker and Mr Dixon by Charles Spencer

2nd January 2015 at 00:00
Most teachers expected little of the future Earl Spencer, brother of Diana, Princess of Wales - except for two brilliant and maverick figures

When I went to boarding school at the age of 8, my parents had split up. I had only ever stayed one night away from home and I was sleepless for six months before going. But it was the done thing so off I went.straight into survival mode.

Maidwell Hall preparatory school was quite tough, with a slightly terrifying headmaster and military-style drill in the morning. The masters were very distant; Michael Barker wasn't. He was not only exceptionally kind but he also made human a subject that I couldn't understand at all - maths. He had a gentle but not condescending sense of humour, and would set problems for us in a jokey, boy-centric manner. Instead of a series of impenetrable numbers and thoughts, it became a fun occasion where he was trying to encourage you.

I remember conversations with him about life, and the rights and wrongs of a private education. I said I wanted to go to a state school because it must be preferable to 13-week blocks away in a rather cold and unpleasant place. He said: "We're just going to get you through this and you'll be fine."

Once a week, boys deemed stupid or lazy were beaten really unpleasantly with a cane on bare buttocks. I'm still friends with several who went through this. One, who was beaten every Saturday for being stupid, did very well at Cambridge.

Mr Barker was outside all of this. He had another life; he was a very good father and had two boys at the school. We felt that he cared about us, that he was wonderfully helpful to those of us who thought it was a pretty unpleasant place to be. He was a kind man. Unfortunately, he died in his late thirties.

To be totally candid, I think, coming from my background, teachers had absolutely no expectations of me. They just thought I'd be fine in life anyway. I was lucky enough to drift through; I could do exams and do a little bit of sport. Those who couldn't do either had an absolutely miserable time.

At Eton, Christopher Dixon - CJD - taught English and was eccentric but brilliantly intelligent. I'm for ever grateful to this very academic, slight man with snow-white hair, glasses and a rather aristocratic profile for giving me a spark. I don't think I'd even have thought of Oxbridge without him.

He decided that it didn't matter what we were academically - he was going to really broaden our minds. Aged 15, we were studying complicated books: Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities and Second World War concentration camp poets. These lit something inside me.

I remember being set an essay on the relationship between God, humanity and literature in Johannes Bobrowski's poems. I just wrote what I felt and it was the most extraordinary moment. If you did a very good piece of work, there would be a note to show it to your housemaster and academic tutor. But this essay was "sent up for good" and I didn't understand what that meant at first. When you did a piece of work the master thought was of a standard that must be in the school records for ever, you had to copy it on to vellum. It's kept somewhere in Eton's archives.

Bringing this up is really not a boast; it was one of the proudest moments of my life. This man - whom I admired and liked - had shown me that I could write, that I could do so much more. English was my strongest subject. I got a distinction in S-level and I'm sure that was down to Mr Dixon.

He also died young and by his own hand, so maybe there was an element of a tortured genius there.

The common theme between Mr Barker and Mr Dixon is that they were both outsiders. They would not have been interested in a huddle in the common room. They were wide-thinking, intelligent, confident men.

Charles Spencer was talking to Lily Farrah. His latest book, Killers of the King, is published by Bloomsbury

Peer review

Charles Spencer

Born 20 May 1964, London

Education Maidwell Hall, Northamptonshire; Eton College, Berkshire

Career Author and broadcaster

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