My best teacher

21st January 2005 at 00:00
George Steiner had been a refugee from the Nazis and talked a lot about the Holocaust. We explored topics such as the nature of evil

GK Morris had been a colonial administrator in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) before embarking on a career as a schoolmaster. He taught Latin in the days when it was big in the school curriculum, and he taught it with such enthusiasm that I diligently slaved away at the reams of exercises and translations he set us and got to be quite good at it, though I've forgotten it all now. Learning Latin taught me the meaning and the roots of words and I think it helped me later to develop a sparse style of writing.

When I was eight, I was shipped off to a small prep school near Norwich called Tavernham Hall to be a boarder, which seemed normal in those days.

The classes were small, about eight or 10, so we were under strict personal supervision. It was a deferential age and I was a deferential pupil. The bloody-minded elements of my character and a resentment of authority didn't manifest themselves until I was in the Army doing national service.

GK Morris - I didn't know the first names of the other boys, never mind the masters - was a big, hairy man. He had hair bristling out of his ears, his nose, everywhere. He wore glasses and the traditional schoolmaster's tweed jacket with leather patches under his academic gown. Some masters would throw chalk to get attention, but he never needed to. Lessons were conducted in silence.

I was a swot because my parents never had any money and I felt I had to repay them for all the sacrifices they had made to send me and my twin sister and my bossy older sister to quite expensive public schools. Looking back, I certainly worked too hard when I was at Cambridge. I got a first, but now I wish I'd had more fun.

Between the ages of eight and 22 I was in all-male institutions: two schools, the Army and a college. I moved from Tavernham Hall to the Leys school, Cambridge, which had been the school of the original Mr Chips. I enjoyed sport enormously and was in the second teams. I was shy, but that was overcome when I became a journalist. My grandfather was the news editor of The Observer in its heyday and my father, Adrian, had a weekly column in the Eastern Daily Press. His great claim to fame, though, was being the founder of the Times crossword. I wanted to become a journalist from the age of 12 but kept it quiet at school. When I went back to the Leys for an old boys' function, at the time when I was rushing around war zones on television, I was accused by one of the masters of having wasted my talents.

One of my tutors at Cambridge was the eminent literary critic, George Steiner. He had just arrived in Cambridge and was a rather controversial figure because he was outside the normal mindset of literary criticism. I was in awe of him. He made me feel inferior, but he was very kind with it.

I used to submit weekly or bi-weekly essays, which he would criticise as I sat in an easy chair in his study. He was fluent in French and German as well as English, and from him I learned that English literature was not the be-all and end-all of literature.

I was reading English, specialising in moralists, and he was well versed in all kinds of things, and had such a wide reading and grounding in so many areas of life and literature; he set me thinking in directions I wouldn't otherwise have gone. He had been a refugee from the Nazis and talked a lot about the Holocaust. We would explore topics such as the nature of evil.

Even as a child I was interested in the rights and wrongs of human behaviour. I had a quiet, rural upbringing and learned my moral values at home, but Steiner was probably more influential than I realised at the time. He'd been close to evil. Even though I am no longer an MP, I still bang on about trust in public life and the inequities of what goes on in Parliament.

War reporter and politician Martin Bell was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1938 Born in Beccles, Suffolk

1948-52 Tavernham Hall school, Norwich

1952-56 The Leys school, Cambridge

1959-62 Reads English at King's College, Cambridge

1962 Joins BBCin Norwich

1965-89 Becomes news reporter for BBC TV. Rises to Washington correspondent

1991 Reports on first Gulf War

1992 Wounded in Sarajevo while reporting on war in Bosnia; awarded OBE

1995 First book published, In Harm's Way.

1997-2001 Becomes independent MP for Tatton after standing against the disgraced Tory incumbent, Neil Hamilton

January 2005 Travels to South-east Asia as Unicef ambassador for humanitarian emergencies to help with tsunami relief

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