My best teacher

9th April 2004 at 01:00
I grew up on the Blackbird Leys estate on the outskirts of Oxford, which was then (the 1980s) a tough area of high unemployment and low esteem, a place where neighbours fought, bricks came through windows and angry graffiti decorated the shops and walls. It was a no-go area the police rarely visited.

I was a quiet, bookish child. I went to the local primary school, Pegasus.

All I remember about my time there is drawing lots of pictures and rewriting Enid Blyton stories, giving them different endings. My form teacher, Mrs Foster, was kindly, with dark curly hair and a calm manner. It was a big class and the kids were pretty lively so she had her hands full, but I remember her being encouraging and giving me lots of stars for good work. My favourite book at the time was Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch and I was delighted when once she asked us to draw a witch's house.

At Wesley Green middle school, where I went next, the only teacher I remember is Miss Burgundy, who hated me; I don't know why. I've always had quite strong opinions; maybe I was at a difficult stage then and had become too vocal. Or it could have been something to do with the fact that I once, with the help of a classmate called Georgina, placed a drawing pin, needle side up, on every chair. I wasn't clever enough to put one on my own chair, so I was soon found out.

By the age of 12 I'd decided that I wanted to be a writer. I was good at English but my favourite subject was RE. Mr Wright, who taught me at Peers school, was a real eccentric. I remember in one assembly he ate a tin of dog food. I guess his message was, you don't know what something is like until you try it. He always wore a bow tie and colourful clothes that matched his personality.

Another memorable teacher at Peers was Mr Burroughs, who taught English.

Again, a colourful character. He had no end of anecdotes about his teenage years in the 60s, how he backpacked around Europe in his Afghan coat and camped in various places. He opened up my reading to things like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Peter Shaffer's Equus.

But it was at Frome community college in Somerset, where I did my A-levels, that I met the teacher who had the greatest influence on me. Ted Huddleston gave me the confidence to realise that I could achieve my dream. I was taking history, English and religious studies and Ted did the philosophy half of RE. Religious studies wasn't popular at A-level, and there were only three or four of us in the class. Ted made philosophy accessible and his enthusiasm was catching. He would write out complicated theories in an A, B, C format and talk you through them step by step, so you could see the logic.

He was the first teacher who seemed to have faith in my ability. He was a warm character with lots of interests and hobbies, and very keen on books.

Although he was in his late 40s, Ted knew what appealed to young people. He knew all the gags from Vic Reeves's and Bob Mortimer's TV programme, Big Night Out, which had just started then and was funny in a dry, sardonic way.

I got three As at A-level and Ted encouraged me to go to university, but I was totally self-motivated and so determined I would have gone anyway. I went to Sussex and, because I loved Ted and his teaching, I read philosophy. He was pleased and thought I'd come out of my shell in Brighton and let my hair down. But my first lecture was on epistemology and I quickly realised philosophy wasn't for me.

Then I developed Crohn's disease and was very ill, which was a blessing because it meant I could stop doing a course I didn't like. Eventually I applied to Cambridge to read English. I sent Ted a postcard to tell him and we've been in sporadic touch since. He hasn't read my book yet but I'm going to send him a copy.

Novelist Eloise Millar was talking to Pamela Coleman


1975 Born Oxford

1980-85 Attends Pegasus primary school

1985-88 Wesley Green middle school

1988-91 Peers school, Littlemore, near Oxford

1991-93 Frome community college, Somerset

1993 Starts philosophy degree at Sussex University

1996-99 Reads English at Cambridge University

1999-2000 Works as secretary

2001-2003 Sub-editor at the Guardian

2003- Freelance copy editor

April 8, 2004 Publication of first novel, Wednesday's Child, by Virago Press, pound;10.99 (see Book of the week, page 30). Currently working on second novel, set in 17th-century London, for which she received an Arts Council grant. Due to appear at Edinburgh Book Festival in August

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