My best teacher

8th August 2003 at 01:00
Miss Winifred Barrows, the headmistress at Lawnside, Great Malvern, was a legend in her own time. She had beautiful arched eyebrows and a lovely smile and charged around the school in navy blue dresses and shoes with Louis heels and straps.

She was rather eccentric and wonderfully old-fashioned in her outlook and her demeanour. She seemed to have been friends with most of the interesting people of the 1930s. George Bernard Shaw and Elgar used to play duets on the school piano I learned on, and Laura Knight did sculptures in the assembly hall. We were taught singing by Elgar's best friend, Sir Ivor Atkins, and tennis by Dan Maskell, the Wimbledon champion. The viola player Lionel Tertis and oboist Leon Goossens came to give us private concerts.

Like all prospective pupils, I was taken for lunch by Miss Barrows with my mother to the smartest hotel in Malvern. Miss Barrows paid for it out of her own pocket. She also organised and paid for parties for the entire school every term. She had huge vitality and was interested in everything to do with the arts, which suited me. If you were keen on maths or science, it was the wrong school. We didn't have a geography teacher for a year. But we all learned how to get up on stage and talk on any subject for five minutes. Miss Barrows was keen on public speaking because she said we would all be asked to open fetes when we grew up.

Miss Barrows's best friend was Gwendoline Parke, another spinster, who taught piano. For a while I had a dream of becoming a concert pianist and practised for four hours a day. Miss Parke was terrifying. She had a red face and her anger always seemed about to burst if you hit a wrong note. In the middle of music lessons, the butler would come in with a glass of sherry on a silver tray to calm her down.

One of the lovely things about Lawnside was that if you weren't good at something, you were allowed to change to another subject. I was chucked out of maths because I couldn't keep up and was allowed to take extra French, which I enjoyed. Instead of hockey, I did art and extra tennis.

About a year after I arrived, Rosemarie Dillon Weston joined to teach English. She'd been to Oxford and would have been a don if she hadn't had to look after a sick sister. She was one of those teachers who had a profound influence on hundreds of girls' lives, even those who weren't remotely interested in English.

Miss Dillon Weston had a Rossetti face, good bone structure, huge, wide-apart brown eyes and a delicate nose. Her hair was worn in a long plait wound round her head, and almost every day of her life she dressed in a brown tweed suit. She never wore tights or stockings, just ankle socks pulled up high, and walking shoes.

When she came into the classroom there was silence. We wanted every minute of her time; lessons seemed too short. She taught us composition and literature, and took us to the theatre. Reading Shakespeare with her was one of the most exciting things in the world. She taught us to be curious and to observe and to write in a way that grabs the reader in the first sentence - lessons that have been incredibly useful in my career.

I kept in touch with her for 40 years. When I started in journalism I sent her everything I wrote and she listened to everything I did on radio and gave me her comments.

When I went back to Lawnside to give away prizes, I was so nervous I stopped off in a field to practise my speech. At the ceremony, Miss Dillon Weston stood at the back in her summer version of the tweed suit and ankle socks, and when I thanked her for all she had done, the entire hall stood up and cheered.

Novelist and broadcaster Angela Huth was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1938 Born in London

1950-54 Boarder at Lawnside, Great Malvern

1954-56 Studies art in Paris and Rome

1957 Joins Harper's Bazaar

1965 Becomes first woman reporter on BBCTV's Man Alive

1970 First novel, Nowhere Girl, published

1982 First stage play, The Understanding, at the Strand Theatre, London, with Ralph Richardson and Joan Greenwood

1994 Publication of Land Girls

1998 Land Girls made into a film

February 2003 Publication of Collected Short Stories

September 4, 2003 New novel, Sun Child, to be published by Little, Brown October 2003 Love and Slaughter to be published in paperback by Little, Brown

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