My best teacher

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Miss Ratcliffe assured me the world wasn't going to end and that it really was worth concentrating on my A-levels

I went to school in many countries because my dad was a lawyer in the colonial service. We arrived in Borneo, where he was attorney-general, in 1952 when I was eight. On the Sunday before the Queen's coronation, we went by launch on a picnic to an outlying island and the sea bed was clearly visible all the way. School was a palm-thatched hut on stilts. Mrs Arrowsmith, the police chief's wife, sat in front of us and powdered her nose. My friend Monica and I were fascinated by her tales of her debutante days, although we didn't learn very much. One day the hut was washed away in a rainstorm, but it was soon built again.

I longed to go to boarding school in England, and when I was nearly 11 I sat the exams for Roedean in the hut on stilts. I'd read so many school stories that I knew what to expect and I was far more of a shock to Roedean than Roedean was to me. I was an only child: chatty, opinionated and used to joining in adult conversations. It took me a while to adjust to polite British ways. But I don't remember ever being unhappy there. My friends and I were the non-gamesy set, very keen on acting and music, and we thought we were the creme de la creme.

Miss Ratcliffe taught me Latin and was my housemistress (effectively my mother) for eight years. She was not beautiful but she had an understated elegance. Her hair was parted in the middle and swept into a bun, she wore wonderful jewellery, including a beautiful opal ring, and she was slender and upright. She could quell bad behaviour with a look, and never had to raise her voice. When I taught for a few years, I could not make the girls shut up. I got through it by regarding every lesson as a cabaret. My main memory is of exhaustion.

Miss Ratcliffe was a fantastic Latin teacher. Between her and my dad, I was steeped in stories of Ancient Greece and Rome. I grew up on Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy, and at school we studied book two of the Aeneid, the sack of Troy. More than 40 years later when I came to write my novel Troy and its companion Ithaka, those stories were still there.

I loved Miss Ratcliffe because she always took me seriously. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, we were all convinced that the world was going to end and I asked her to let me go to Cambridge because I wanted to be with my boyfriend Michael when that happened. She didn't dismiss me out of hand; she assured me very calmly and sensibly that the world wasn't going to end and that it really was worth concentrating on my A-levels.

I wanted to go to drama school and my father agreed that I could if I didn't get into Oxford or Cambridge. In my first week at Oxford, I had the best stroke of luck. I got a part in Hang Down Your Head and Die, a show against capital punishment which transferred to the West End. I acted all the time I was at university. I had a singing part in the centenary production of Alice in Wonderland, which we rehearsed in the dean's garden at Christ Church. They hid me in a tree for the performances because it was my finals term and I didn't have permission to act.

I didn't become an actress. I became a writer by accident after the birth of my first daughter, when I entered a short story competition in The Times. I didn't win, but I'd had such fun writing my ghost story that I kept on submitting one thing after another. The competition entry, "Rose", later became part of a book called Apricots at Midnight. And in my poetry collection for adults, Voices from the Dolls' House (Rockingham Press), there's a poem called "Elegy for Miss Ratcliffe".


1944 Born in Jerusalem

1955-62 Roedean school, Sussex

1963-66 Reads French and Spanish at St Hilda's College, Oxford

1968-71 Teaches French at Droylsden Fairfield high school for girls, Manchester

1976 Tea at Mrs Manderby's, first of more than 80 books for children and young adults, published (Hamish Hamilton)

1990 The Tower Room, first of the Egerton Hall trilogy set at Roedean, published

2000 Troy shortlisted for the Whitbread children's novel award and the Carnegie Medal (highly commended)

March 2003 Facing the Light published by Orion on the adult fiction list.


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