My best teacher

11th August 2006 at 01:00
What made Neil Laing such a special teacher was that he was so cool. And because he was cool he could explain Shakespeare and Marlowe and Webster and poetry to spotty teenagers who couldn't see the relevance of any of it and somehow engender great enthusiasm. We realised that you didn't have to be a wimp to enjoy things that were artistic and complicated.

He had a dog called Jack who sat passively in a basket under his desk throughout lessons, never once causing any distraction. Jack was so respectful I think all of us potentially uproarious boys looked at the dog and thought if he's going to obey this guy, we certainly will. The dog was white with brown spots and long ears. Appropriately, being an English master's pet, I think he was an English setter. Neil Laing was also cool because he was married to someone who worked for The Times. His wife was a sub-editor in the days before careers officers had heard of the media.

Nobody ever tried it on in Neil Laing's lessons, and they tried it on in lots of other classes. He was an accessible, likeable person and he took me through English O- and A-levels at Epsom college. He was about 6ft, lean with a well manicured moustache, a jutting brow and a slightly intense look. He had what Tom Wolfe would describe as a lantern jaw. He was the model of courtesy, and very neat. He looked as though he had come out of a Thomas Hardy period drama.

He knew how to trigger boyhood interests by focussing on the sexual imagery in the texts we were studying. And when we were discussing King Lear, I remember him saying we needed to understand the interiors and that what goes on inside people is more important than what is on the outside. Twenty years later I still vividly remember him telling us that physical illness is a picnic compared to mental illness.

He got us reading aloud in lessons and I liked that. There is some sort of actor gene in me; my brother is a comedian and my sister an actress. But he was very cross with me once when I read Hamlet in a silly accent. My school reports always said things like: "He is clearly interested in things other than the class he is doing."

English was the only subject which spurred me and which I wasn't doing just to pass exams. I still love poetry, and it was quite an achievement to get adolescent boys not to think it was sissy. Neil Laing would go off on flights of fancy and sometimes in a class which lasted an hour, he would spend 50 minutes talking about just one line in Shakespeare. I remember once asking him whether we were reading too much into these plays, which set off a discussion that lasted a double lesson.

I didn't enjoy school. I was very bad at sport, which was humiliating in a public school culture that was very sporty. Now, I realise of course that the people who were good at sport are working as clerks in pension firms or middle managers, so their lives ended when the school bell rang for the last time, which is hugely satisfying.

I was set on a career in the media from the age of 12. I saw myself on the radio and playing records. My heroes were people like Roger Scott and Kenny Everett. When we had a careers session at school and I said I wanted to go into the media there was real shock. But Neil Laing encouraged me. He invited me round to his house to meet his wife and have a chat about her work as a journalist. And when I started playing records on the radio station at the local psychiatric hospital in Banstead once a week, he thought it was a great idea to get cracking early.

Neil Laing had absolutely the right balance as a teacher between the chummy and the personal, and the authoritative, which is a difficult balance to get. I owe him and never told him, and this is a great opportunity to do so.

Broadcaster Jeremy Vine was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1965 Born Epsom, Surrey

1969-72 Lynton prep school

1972-77 Aberdour school, Burgh Heath, Surrey

1978-82 Epsom college

1983-86 Durham University

1986-87 Trainee reporter, Coventry Evening Telegraph

1987-89 News trainee, BBC London

1989-93 Reporter, Today programme

1993-97 Lobby correspondent, BBC radio and TV

1997-99 Africa correspondent, BBC radio and TV

1999-2003 Newsnight presenter, BBC TV

2003 onwards presents The Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2, weekdays from 12pm to 2pm

2004 onwards presents Page Turners on BBC 1

2005 Wins Sony Gold for speech broadcaster of the year and replaces Peter Snow as election expert

Jeremy Vine's radio show resumes on August 21

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