My best teacher

11th April 2003 at 01:00
My first teacher, at Rushmore Road primary school, Hackney, was Miss Delight. She was a little grey thing, with grey hair, tied in a bun, a grey jumper and a long grey skirt. She taught us nine of the Ten Commandments.

We had to learn them by heart - except the one about adultery. She said that was something only grown-ups had to worry about.

When I was 11, I passed the scholarship to go to the City of London school for girls. The school was evacuated to Keighley in Yorkshire during the war and I was a day girl billeted with a lovely family called the Exleys. I took delight in my new red and white uniform - a silky striped shirt, dark red box-pleated gymslip with a girdle, red bloomers with a pocket, and a beautiful big, round velour hat with a brim which you could bend to look dashing, and, in the summer, a straw Panama.

The uniform was the best thing about the school. It was a public school, but the teaching wasn't very good. Except for the remarkable Miss Peach, who taught English. She had a perfect Oxford accent - she pronounced "off" as "orf" - and I liked her a lot.

One day when it was raining, instead of going out to play hockey we were allowed to stay in the form room. The other girls were playing Glen Miller records and dancing, but I sat in the corner reading Pride and Prejudice.

Miss Peach spotted me and from then on plied me with books. Apart from writers like Thackeray, Dickens and Austen, she gave me great stuff like Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I lapped up.

Miss Peach made no judgments about books being "suitable" or "unsuitable".

She taught me to read and that's how I learned to write. I remember her reading out my essays to the class.

I was at the City of London school for about a year and a half before being taken away (why, I don't know), and dumped in Welwyn Garden City in a school called Skinners' Company, another public school. I switched off in class, but Miss Peach had opened my eyes and expanded my horizons. I read myself stupid and got into trouble for reading through lessons. I remember being terrified of Miss Price, who taught mathematics and thought it was sheer wilfulness that I couldn't understand. I've never cracked maths to this day. I'm numerate - but only just.

The groundwork for my love of reading had been laid by Miss Beasley, a pretty young woman who worked in the public library in Cirencester in Gloucestershire (another place where I had been evacuated). Once I'd worked my way through all the books in the children's library, she allowed me to read grown-up books. She started me on J B Priestley's The Good Companions and I moved on to Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole, Jules Verne, H G Wells, Rudyard Kipling and Jerome K Jerome. I'd learned to read at three and a half. My mother was a great reader and although we had a bad relationship, one of the rare times she was pleased with me was when I joined the library.

After the war, we returned to London, where my parents tried to send me to Selhurst grammar in Croydon, but I refused to go. I'd been described as a "problem child", but at 15 I was tall and big and, having devoured Nursing Mirror and Nursing Times, decided I wanted to become a nurse. I pretended I was 17 and got a job as a nursing cadet in Epsom.

Author Claire Rayner was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1931 Born in London

1942-43 Scholarship girl at City of London school; evacuated to Yorkshire

1950-54 Trains to be a nurse at Royal Northern Hospital, London, and wins gold medal

1957 Begins writing for Nursing Times, Nursing Mirror, The Lancet and Baby World

1962 First factual book published, Mothers and Midwives, and The Final Year (fiction)

1963 Begins first agony column, for Hers magazine

1966-88 Writes advice column for Woman's Own

1972-85 Writes series of 12 novels called The Performers

1980-99 Writes advice column for Daily Mirror

1981 City of London freeman

2000 Awarded doctorate from Oxford Brookes University

March 2003 Publication of autobiography, How Did I Get Here From There?

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