My best teacher

27th November 1998 at 00:00

I was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, and went to a village school in Prestbury. I was only six when I left, so it didn't have much impact, but I was shy and kept to myself. I remember an older boy who used to protect me in the playground. He was only a year or so older and not particularly big or strong, but he headed off potential bullies. I remember thinking how nasty it would have been if I had been bullied.

My Dad was a test pilot and had to move to Heathrow, so we went to live in Buckinghamshire. I was sent to a prep school where my uncle was headteacher. It was unfortunate really. He was a good teacher and good with children generally, but he felt he should keep aloof from me and make a point of showing no favouritism.

Once there was a terrible misunderstanding. The school had more than one Allen, and one lunch time my name was called and I had to walk all the way up to my uncle at the end of the dining hall. Everyone was silent - and he said: "The one thing I cannot tolerate is a bully in the school." I said: "Me, a bully? I'm a goodie." "Don't interrupt!" he shouted and cuffed me. I suppose he was trying to show that his nephew wasn't getting any special treatment. I sat down in tears and no one would come near me.

I was inconsolable, but in the next lesson, just as I was beginning to get over it, he came in and said: "I have an apology to make, Allen. Do you know what an apology is?" I said I didn't and burst into tears again. But then he made a public apology - he'd got the wrong Allen. It must have been terrible for him, but it's amazing the effect such an incident can have.

After prep school I went to Bradfield College in Berkshire. We had incredibly dedicated teachers - I don't think there was a single dud among them. Three, in particular, had a big impact on me. My housemaster, Sam Hunt, was quiet and allowed my dreams to flourish. I was a dreamer. I wanted to be an explorer, but I was no good with my hands, I wasn't a sportsman and I wasn't rich - in fact I lacked just about all the necessary qualities. He must have thought I was a total write-off, but he built up my confidence, he was supportive, he was always there - fatherly really.

The deputy head was Murray Argyle, quite a large man with white hair. He had a naval background and was an extraordinary mixture of compassion and strength. He could be terrifying. He taught biology and if anyone was inattentive he would slam down the enormous great ruler on his desk, which would make the most amazing, shocking sound. He would just stand there and pronounce, but he had a stature and magnetism that made you want to listen.

Then there was Malcolm Thompson, my tutor and the one who helped me through A-level biology. He kept goats and chickens in his back garden. I was still painfully shy and the last person to think it was all right to chat to a teacher. But we got on well and he told me I would make a good teacher. Now I'm an explorer, teaching people about places is what I'm really doing. It's the only part of my work that's valid. It can be very self-indulgent - going off and following dreams, but I get just as much satisfaction nowadays out of sharing my experiences. Malcolm Thompson spotted that I might be able to do this.

On my expeditions I'm also a pupil. I try not to go in like Indiana Jones, but to learn from the local people to be more like a child, finding his way through the jungle with the help of his teachers.

Benedict Allen is a full-time explorer and author. His latest book, `Edge of Blue Heaven', was published last month. His BBC2 television series of the same name concludes on November 19 at 8pm. He was talking to Bernard Adams.

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