My best teacher

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Horace Lacey taught biology with gusto at Wyggeston grammar school for boys in Leicester when I was in the sixth form there during the 1940s. His enthusiasm for his subject spilled over. He was a stocky man who walked like a gamecock with his head turned to one side, and he had wiry, frizzy hair. He had enormous brio.

Until I reached the sixth form, I didn't enjoy my schooldays much. There was so much rote learning; I can still say, "Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant", but God knows what that has done for me. I wasn't interested in most of the subjects we had to study. I defy anybody to be interested in Latin declensions or French irregular verbs. My reports said:

"Good work, spoilt by silly behaviour." I played up, tried to create some kind of diversion. It wasn't until I was in the science sixth and was studying a subject I really enjoyed that I had a good time.

To come into Horace Lacey's class, where he treated you as a thinking human being who might have interests and enthusiasms of your own, was so refreshing. He was a good teacher who conveyed his delight and fascination with the natural world and I was very grateful to him.

As well as being a good naturalist, he was passionate about steam engines, and would talk to us about Sir Nigel Gresley, the great engineer who designed and built locomotives for the Great Western Railway. I am not in the least interested in steam engines, but his sheer infectious enthusiasm made me seem delighted by it all.

I'd been keen on natural history since I was very young and by the age of seven had my own "museum" at home to display my collection of butterflies, birds' eggs, abandoned nests, conkers, the shed skin of a grass snake and fossils. What I was most interested in was geology and paleontology.

Fossils have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a boy I spent much of my free time collecting the ammonites that are abundant in the Jurassic limestone in the countryside around Leicester. The excitement of hitting a block of stone with a hammer and seeing it fall apart to reveal a beautiful coiled shell 50 million years old is as great to me today as it was when I was a small boy.

Wyggeston grammar had no provision for geology, but my father, who was principal of the city's university college, discovered that one of the masters had read the subject at university. His name was JR Cottrill and he was teaching physics at the time, but he saw me after school and guided my interest and advised me which books to read, which was very helpful.

I was at Wyggeston during the Second World War, and of course everyone of military age was in the services, so most of the teachers were elderly. I was astonished even then how much time all the teachers devoted to us kids, giving up their evenings to help us. The school had a good amateur dramatic society organised by Mr Russell in which I was involved - though not to the degree that my brother Richard was - and we spent day after day rehearsing.

We did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. I can still sing the whole of the first act of HMS Pinafore, playing all the parts, without pausing for breath.

When Horace Lacey retired I was invited to the school prize day. I'd read natural sciences at Cambridge and by that stage was on television and had a public reputation, and I think he was pleased by what I had done. It was my first opportunity to say thank you to him. I started off on a eulogy of dear old Horace, going on about how good he was, but was suddenly completely thrown when I glanced towards him across the school hall and saw he was so moved that his shoulders were wracked with sobs.

Naturalist, broadcaster and author Sir David Attenborough was talking to Pamela Coleman. He is currently working on his next television project, Life in the Undergrowth, about insects


1926 Born Twickenham

1952 Joins BBC Television talks department at Alexandra Palace, London

1954 Launches Zoo Quest series

1965 Becomes controller of BBC2, where he oversees introduction of colour TV to UK

1969-73 BBC director of programmes

1979 Writes and presents 13-part Life on Earth series for BBC, followed by The Living Planet (1984) and The Trials of Life (1990)

1985 Knighted

1993 Presents Life in the Freezer

1995 Writes and presents The Private Life of Plants. Presents The Life of Birds (1998) and The Life of Mammals (2002)

2002 Publishes autobiography, Life on Air

2004 Radio 3 broadcasts six-part series, Attenborough's Journeys, about music he takes with him on his travels

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