My best teacher

24th March 2000 at 00:00
These teachers were the last generation who were expected to teach the subject, not the pupil, and they were passionate

I spent a halcyon year with Mr Simpson in the mid-1950s at Wallisdean primary school in Fareham, Hampshire. It was one of the many schools built after the war - lots of plate glass, boiling in summer. We were lavishly provided for; I was even given a violin and taught to play it. When I compare what was available to us with what was available to my two daughters at school in the 1980s, they seem deprived. We did country dancing, put on plays, went on nature walks.

I had started school early, and aged nine I was the youngest in Mr Simpson's top junior class. He was a father figure and I adored him. Even then blokes were a rarity in primary schools. He must have been in his thirties, but then he seemed ancient.

He smoked all the time, as most adults did then, and his fingers were yellow. At lunchtime he'd say: "Who wants to go and get my fags?" We'd all shove our hands high into the air, desperate to be picked. Sometimes I'd fold my arms as if I wasn't interested, hoping to stand out from the crowd and be picked that way. We'd be given two shillings to get 20 Kensitas Tipped and we were allowed to keep the penny change.

He couldn't stand anyone chatting if work was going on. He'd just have to say "Fetch my briefcase" and a hush would fall. The briefcase contained a leather strap which he'd lay across the front of the desk. I never saw him use it. His explosions were controlled so we felt secure with him, unlike the sewing teacher who reduced me to tears, and the head who made me want to pin myself against the wall in the corridor when she passed.

Mr Simpson suited me because I found the social side of school rather tiring. I think it must be even harder now for certain children. I had four sisters and it was important for me to spend time on my own, as it still is. My latest children's novel, Bad Dreams, is autobiographical in that one of the two main characters is the sort of child I was then. Mr Simpson was keen on silence and so was I. He also used to play us msic or read to us while we put our heads down on the desks and just listened. I loved it.

My parents moved to Northampton in 1958. I had taken the 11-plus early in Hampshire and failed, but I tried again and got into Northampton high school for girls. My first year there was spent in an old town house called Towercliffe with parquet floors, red velvet curtains pulled against the sun, oil paintings and a garden with a gardener. I started in the middle of term and my first sight of the classroom felt like sheer physical shock, it was so extraordinary. I could not believe that this could be a school.

I stayed there until I went to university to read history and politics, and I couldn't have been happier. I had some superb teachers. They were the last generation who were expected to teach the subject, not the pupil, and they had passion for their subjects. There was a lot of discipline and strictness but it suited me. I needed some structure to focus all my teenage nervous energy.

Within the structure there was room for experimenting. I was allowed to write a novel with a friend. We called it Agatha the Witch, and read out one chapter a week to the class.

One English teacher that I remember was Miss Sinton: she was very sharp. One day when she was striding up and down the classroom and not in the best humour, I asked "Could I be a writer?" and she said "Oh yes, you could," in a tone that implied it was no great compliment.

The story so far

1947 Born in Leicester

1968 Graduates from University of Warwick

1978 Publishes the first of more than 40 novels, The Summer-House Loon, written while bringing up her eldest daughter in Edinburgh

1986 Publishes The Killjoy, the first of four novels for adults

1987 Publishes Madame Doubtfire, which later becomes a film, Mrs Doubtfire

1990 Wins Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children's Fiction Award for Goggle-Eyes

1993 Wins Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Children's Novel Award for Flour Babies

2000 Latest children's novel, Bad Dreams, published by Doubleday

Anne Fine was talking toGeraldine Brennan


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