My best teacher

20th October 2006 at 01:00
I was brought up in Tavistock in Devon. It was a tiny market town, a tannery town and a centre for trading in tin. Very damp, very grey, full of ghosts. We lived on the edge of the town and I spent a lot of time on the moors when I was growing up. I had plenty of time to think and to listen to what was going on in my head, and that's when I started making up stories.

I was brought up in a world of stories rather than books: my mother was a storyteller and so were most of my teachers.

The first teacher I remember well from Tavistock primary school was Miss Moon. She ran the Cubs and at lunchtime she ran the school library, so she was important in my life all round.

Another teacher I liked was Miss Calloway. She played the piano with her back to us, but she could see us in the reflection on the piano or in her glasses. If we were messing about she would spin round on her piano stool and say, "I'd throw a piece of chalk at you if it wasn't rude", and then she'd throw the chalk anyway. That taught me to not assume people can't see you when you're behind them.

I was able to spend a lot of time drawing at primary school, more than most children get to do now. Mr Gregory, my class teacher at one point, was an important influence. He was an amateur artist and he taught me techniques such as how to lay on a colour wash, the logic of painting in the big boring bits first rather than doing the bits I most wanted to paint first and then not going back to the boring bits. He talked to me about my drawing and painting as if I was a grown-up.

A lot of my childhood was spent in a world of women during the war when my dad was away as a mechanic with the RAF. My mum taught me manners and morals: I learned to open doors for ladies and carry their bags and help Mrs So-and-So to cross the road, whether or not she wanted to go. The school was closed some of the time and open for half a day other times, so my main memory is of spending a lot of time helping my mother.

I always assumed that when I left grammar school I would go and work with my father. After the war he worked as a representative for a firm that sold and repaired farm machinery. I loved visiting farms with him, listening to him explain about the machines and the countryside. But it worried me that he had two weeks' holiday a year and usually worked on Saturday mornings, and I was used to getting three months.

The lady art teacher at Plympton grammar school - I can't remember her name -told me that I could be an art teacher and she advised me to go to art college rather than teacher training college. Plymouth art college was traditional: lots of hours in front of the model, carrying a sketchbook at all times, all good stuff. When I was at art college I realised that I didn't want to teach: even three months wasn't enough for me, I wanted 12.

My favourite teachers were my parents and they taught me the best things I know. Their philosophy of life was contentment: they appreciated what they had rather than thinking about what they didn't have. They taught me a lot about love: they loved being with each other and with me and my brother, taking us on long country walks.

My mother told stories all the time: traditional tales or stories she had made up, so it always seemed natural to me to make up stories and tell them to my friends. One of my early books, Two Can Toucan, was a version of a story I used to tell at art college.

Our house was on the side of a valley and there was a circle on the ground in the field opposite, which my mother told me was a fairy circle. Shortly before she died in 2004 at 95, I asked her again what it was. She still said it was a fairy circle, of course, as if I should have known better than to ask. She introduced me to the magic of life which can't be explained just by logic.

Author and illustrator David McKee was talking to Geraldine Brennan


1935 Born in Eggbuckland, Devon

1940-45 Tavistock primary school

1945-50 Tavistock grammar school

1950-51 Plympton grammar school

1951-56 Plymouth art college. While still at college starts career as an illustrator and cartoonist for newspapers and magazines

1964 Publishes first two picture books, Two Can Toucan and Bronto's Wings

1968 Publishes Elmer, the story of a patchwork elephant, later revised and re-illustrated. Elmer has now featured in more than 20 picture books published by Andersen Press, plus bath books, activity books and toys.

McKee's other key characters are Mr Benn and King Rollo

1970 Works on Mr Benn BBC film series, followed by films for the Save the Children Fund

1979 Sets up film company, King Rollo Films

October 2006 Elmer and Aunt Zelda published by Andersen Press

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