My best teacher

21st August 1998 at 01:00
I was a bit prejudiced against my secondary school because it was built on the land where I used to go tobogganing. Monks Hill - now Selsdon High - was an 11-16 comprehensive. When I went there it had only been open a year. By the time I was in the fourth year it was a full school with 1,200 children.

It was quite rough, with lots of children from housing estates in Croydon. The fights in the playgrounds were of a different nature to those I had seen before.

I was reasonably gifted but I tended to play the fool. As an only child I had grown up having little contact with other kids. I tried to compensate by messing around, but it affected my school work.

I played down my abilities; I didn't want to become the class swot. I fooled around and got into trouble. The teachers would say: "You can do better. Why are you misbehaving?" You could almost see the frustration on their faces; they were trying to get the best out of everybody. There were 30 to 35 pupils in each class. They didn't have much time to spend on individuals.

I was getting good grades in subjects that interested me, such as English, history, geography and French - I seemed to have a facility for languages. Maths and sciences were confusing, I didn't understand them.

But I had a tempestuous relationship with my French teacher. One day she asked how I felt we were getting on. I said: "I don't feel like I want to hit you any more." I was suspended for a couple of weeks. By the time my words had been repeated to the head of year it was as if I had actually threatened her.

At the start of the fourth year we had to choose which subjects we were going to take for O-level. I didn't want to do English literature. Peer pressure again. Literature was for girls, not some local oik. My English teacher, Bob Overy, persuaded me to take it. It became my best subject, and I went on to do A-level and eventually an MA in creative writing.

Bob Overy was fairly short and quite rotund. He was a jolly figure, humorous and affable. But he could lose his temper quickly - you were aware there was another side to him. He commanded respect through personality. You wanted to please him because you liked him.

He realised I had potential as I was good at writing essays, although I never had a sense of him singling me out as exceptional. But I was one of a small group chosen to sit O-level English in January instead of June.

Bob Overy didn't have a dry academic approach. He had enthusiasm, you felt you were part of the journey with him, instead of being led by the nose. He told us about the First World War poet Wilfred Owen. I remember being very moved when he told us Owen had died four days before the Armistice.

The English teacher in my first novel, Acts of Revision, is a cross between Bob Overy and Miss Jean Brodie. I used extracts from the reports Bob Overy wrote about me in Acts of Revision.

My old headteacher, Johnnie Johnson, heard all the fuss about Acts of Revision and got hold of a copy. He wrote to me to say how much he enjoyed it. He has retired and lives in Sussex, where he writes about real-life murders and disasters.

A correspondence developed between us. It seemed odd to be on a level footing with my old headteacher. He seemed amused by the idea behind the book, rather than concerned about what I might be saying about his old school. Having read it, he realised it wasn't about real people. His reaction was very different to that of the Croydon Guardian. The first question the local newspaper reporter asked me was: "How do you feel about dragging your old school through the mud?" I don't know what has happened to Bob Overy, but I hope he would be pleased that a pupil who didn't even want to do English literature has ended up a published novelist after being inspired by him.

Martyn Bedford's debut novel, 'Acts of Revision', about a disturbed man who returns to his old school to avenge himself on his teachers, created a sensation after it was sold to the publishers for Pounds 100,000. His second novel, 'Exit Orange Red', was published in July by Transworld. Martyn Bedford was talking to Anne Horner.

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