My best teacher

1st November 2002 at 00:00
They were a good combination: Slug with his passion and my father with his sweet reason.

They were all wonderful in a weird way. At my primary school there was Miss Foster, who was all soft and leathery and very old, and wore a sort of leather flying helmet, indoors and out, though I never remember her outdoors. She was a fiend for mental arithmetic. I was good at primary school, top of most things. The headmaster was called Mr Pugsley, and he looked just as you would imagine from the name: short, fat, and mean. He didn't actually bite, but his canings were famous. I only got caned once because, as I say, I was good then.

I wasn't good at secondary school, I was bad. From the second year on, I saw my job as fooling about, and the teachers' job as trying to stop me. Our form master was called Kramer, after the villain in Dick Barton. He was a severe man, who seemed to take no pleasure in anything, even punishing us. He said on my report that I seemed bent on becoming the buffoon of the class, which was true. My friends, Brian Palfrey and John Gerrish, who were also bent on becoming buffoons, were annoyed that Kramer had singled me out. It was a great strain being bad all the time. It was easy, if a little shameful, to reduce the weaker teachers to tears and hysteria, but we felt honour bound to play up the tough teachers as well, which meant we got hit across the head a lot.

There was one teacher who was especially dangerous to muck about with, our English teacher, whom we called Slug, but not to his face. He had a cruel wit, and a fierce and sudden temper. Quite often one forgot to fool about because he was such an interesting man. He had flashes of inspiration: once, out of the blue, he started talking about film scripts, and got us to write one, complete with storyboards and casting suggestions - this would have been in about 1951. He encouraged us to write poetry, though he was blisteringly contemptuous of the results. He was a poet, but was too shy and proud to show us his stuff - or perhaps he feared our savage wit as much as we feared his. But he did give me the sense that literature was worth getting excited about: he hated Milton with a passion, and in the sixth form had a brawl with a boy about what Eliot meant by the objective correlative.

He wasn't good at getting you through exams. At one point, half his English sixth form were coming round to our house to be coached by my father, who I suppose was my best teacher, although he never taught me formally. He was head of modern languages at Cardiff high school for boys, a classier place than the one I went to. He was keen that I shouldn't go to the school he taught in, and I can see why: he didn't want to be embarrassed by his stroppy son.

Unlike Slug, he was very good at getting people through exams. Instead of ranting on about how much he hated Milton, he would gently point out that there are only about four questions on Paradise Lost that ever crop up, and only about half a dozen reasonable answers. Of course, I'd try to prove him wrong, but he would patiently dismantle my arguments and hand them back to me in neat pieces. A constant memory of my teenage years: me striding up and down in the living room, passionately arguing, with my dad sitting in his armchair, pushing me further and further out on evermore fragile limbs, with his friendly but lethal Socratic questions. I would never admit defeat, but I don't think I ever won an argument with him. He didn't half show me how to out-argue other people, though.

Looking back, they were a good combination: Slug with his passion and my father with his sweet reason. But if it were a competition, my father would win hands down.

Many years later, I rang him up to tell him my son had just got a first in electroacoustics. "I'm not surprised at all," he said. "Talent often skips a generation."

The story so far

1936 Born in Cardiff

1947-54 Attends Whitchurch grammar

1954-57 University College London

1957-58 University College Cardiff (PGCE)

1965 First TVproduction, a BBCplay, Who's Going to Take Me On?

1995 Writes screenplay adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Other credits include Middlemarch, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair

2001 Writes screenplay adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary, nominated for best adapted screenplay by British Academy Awards and Writers' Guild of America

October 2002 Tipping the Velvet, BBC2

November 10 Adaptation of Daniel Deronda begins on BBC1

November 24 Dr Zhivago begins on ITV

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