Mr Westhall and Mr Ford by Nicholas Owen

21st August 2015 at 01:00
One was particular about punctuation; the other was too kind to give anyone the slipper. The BBC newsreader remembers the teachers who got him through his turbulent school career

I had a roller-coaster education. My mum died when I was 8 and I was sent to boarding school, which I hated. Then I moved to a preparatory day school called St Christopher's in Surrey. That's where I met Arthur Westhall, who taught me English when I was 10 and 11.

I was always a terrifically keen reader and I enjoyed Dickens from a young age, but it was Arthur who got me into the business of wanting to write. It sounds a bit pompous, but I enjoyed writing essays and learned a lot from his insistence on the basics: good spelling and proper sentence construction.

In those days an essay had to be a certain length, and I learned that if you spaced the words out a bit, you could write fewer of them and still fulfil the length. It became useful in the newspaper world, when I ended up sub-editing in the printworks and learning the art of spacing things out.

Arthur was a traditional, old-fashioned schoolmaster. He was a bachelor, rather precise in his habits, and he was strict. I can't say there was a lot of fun to be had in his class. We're still in touch and I'm always careful when I write to Arthur not to begin a sentence with "and". Journalists do, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it, but even though I'm 68 I still feel Arthur could reprimand me for it.

I failed the 11-plus exam, and as my family didn't have enough money for me to move on to public school, I went back into the state system.

Banstead County Secondary School for boys was an awful shock for a naive lad from a prep school. It was big, loud and intimidating. I was put in the A stream, which was rather a sharp learning curve. The C streamers were tough lads and I don't think they had much time for us gentle souls in the A stream. You certainly learned how to fight there.

George Ford taught geography and it was he who helped me through the shock of moving schools. He was in his early twenties and he was very humane, rather fun, smiley and jolly cheerful.

Teachers used the slipper at Banstead and I was slippered quite a lot, usually for talking at the wrong time and general bad behaviour. It certainly wasn't a deterrent for us lads. If anything, it was a badge of honour: it gave you standing among your mates.

George never slippered me - I don't think he slippered anyone. His kindness made Banstead bearable. I enjoyed his classes and the way he imparted information in a friendly, affable and cheerful way. I still remember much of it now.

I was only there for a couple of years, because in those days there was something called the 13-plus, which was a safety net for those who had failed the 11-plus. I passed that, which meant I could transfer to the grammar stream of another school.

I got five O-levels, but I was burning to be a reporter, so I left school at 17 and worked at the local paper.

George and Arthur are both still with us. George is teaching in Eastern Europe and Arthur is approaching 90. Arthur and I re-established contact many years ago when we bumped into each other in Surrey. He knew what I had gone on to do and he was kind enough to be interested in that. But I was keen to remind him that teachers matter more in life than fly-by-night journalists.

Nicholas Owen was speaking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is supporting Cancer Research UK's Legacy Giving campaign. For information about writing a gift in your will, visit www.cruk.orgWriteAnEnd

Life on camera

Nicholas Owen

Born 10 February 1947, London

Education Hamsey Green Primary School, London; Tavistock Hall, Sussex; St Christopher's School, Surrey; Banstead County Secondary School, Surrey; West Ewell Secondary Modern, Surrey

Career Newsreader, TV presenter and author. Formerly ITV News' royal correspondent, now a BBC newsreader

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