My best teacher

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
It was my English master, John Osborne, who set me on the road to the Middle East. He was an inspiring teacher of English literature but he also took an extracurricular sixth-form class at Marlborough on Islamic culture.

He'd spent some time in Iran and studied the architecture there and showed us superb photographs he'd taken of Isfahan and Shiraz. I was fascinated to hear him talk about mosques and caravanserais and how the irrigation systems worked. Back in the Seventies, nobody in Britain knew anything about Islam or the Islamic world. They were about to, because the Iranian revolution was nearly upon us. These were the last months of the Shah's regime.

My interest in the Arab world had begun when I was 16 and met Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the veteran Arabian explorer and author. But he wasn't as inspiring as John Osborne who talked about the Middle East as a fascinating place with wonderful friendly people and an amazing culture and civilisation. He encouraged us to do some research and to give mini-talks on the art of the mosque and the minaret. Later at university, when I went on to read Arabic and Islamic studies, my dissertation on Islamic art in north Africa was inspired by John Osborne.

Deciding to read Arabic at university was the only sensible decision I took as a teenager. I liked languages and thought here was a language not many Britons speak. It's the lingua franca in 22 countries and, most important, many of those countries have oil, so I reasoned that there should always be a job. It didn't quite work out as simply as that. I soon learnt I had to graft the Arabic on to an additional skill, and drifted into banking.

I remember John Osborne as a rather pinched, sallow, unhealthy looking chap which is why I didn't recognise him when I saw him this summer just after he'd retired. Now he is fit and tanned and looks much younger than his years. He is still leading tours to various parts of the world, including Iran. Then, he appeared bookish, was bald and reminded me of a singer of the time called Eno. His personality shone through though and his passion for books was infectious. He wasn't teaching because it was a job, he was teaching because he loved literature and that rubbed off on us, just as his love of Islam did. John Osborne also stands out because he was a good listener. A lot of teachers preach at you. His classes were interactive.

However, Oliver Ramsbotham, who taught late medieval history at O-level and was my personal tutor, is probably the best teacher I had. He was a kind person with glasses, long straight sandy hair and a pale freckled skin. He was of the era of corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches. He is now at Bradford University in the peace studies department. Like John Osborne, he was passionate about his subject. His descriptions of the conquest of South America were so vivid we could imagine ourselves wearing suits of armour.

He also taught us a lot about writing essays. I remember being told not to be afraid of using semicolons. I haven't seen Oliver Ramsbotham lately but we are in touch by e-mail.

I was not a star pupil and never shone academically. It was quite extraordinary, therefore, to read John Osborne's review of my book, Blood and Sand, in the college magazine, "The Old Marlburian". To hear a teacher of nearly 30 years ago praising my punctuation and use of grammar when I never really excelled in those things at school was great. I was really chuffed about that.

Frank Gardner, the BBC's security correspondent, was talking to Pamela Coleman


1961 Born London

1965-67 Wetherby's school, London

1967-69 Attends the International School in the Hague when diplomat father is posted to Holland

1969-74 St Ronan's prep school, Kent

1974-79 Marlborough

1980-84 Reads Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University

1984-86 Works in marketing for Gulf export company

1986-95 Investment banker

1995 Joins BBC world service

1997 Gulf correspondent

2000 Middle East correspondent

2002 onwards Security correspondent

2004 Shot and paralysed in Saudi Arabia

2005 Awarded the OBE

May 2006 Publication of autobiographical Blood and Sand. Released as audio book in September

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