My best teacher

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
O-levels were for the clever few so I was taught secretarial skills. I left with the kindly valediction 'You'll end up sweeping floors' I lived in Raynes Park, where clerks bought the News Chronicle and where upwardly mobile meant buying your butter at the Home amp; Colonial instead of the Co-op. My father topped off his social skills as gambler, drunkard and wife-beater with bigamy. My mother, left with two daughters under five, rent arrears and nothing in the larder, began work in a factory. Education wasn't a priority.

I failed my 11-plus but was not disappointed. I had no expectations, and no one had expectations of me. It was quite comfortable, really. We had one inspiring teacher at my secondary modern, the art master Benny Hill (no, not that one). He staged a production of Children in Uniform with staff and pupils. It took a year to achieve and was brilliant.

O-levels were for the clever few, so I was taught secretarial skills. I left in 1964 with the kindly valediction, "You'll end up sweeping floors". After three years learning shorthand and typing I hit the world of employment unable to take dictation and able to type very fast, but inaccurately. I produced entire sentences with my fingers on the wrong keys. Very Joycean. I spilt tea, could not arrange flowers and my American tan tights were inevitably laddered.

But I had blue eyes, hair like a pair of curtains and a mini-skirt. I tottered into the Kensington art publisher's, Editions Alecto, initially as receptionist, and began a happy 12-year relationship with contemporary art - David Hockney, Jim Dine, Patrick Caulfield, Gillian Ayres, Bridget Riley et al. I read copiously behind the switchboard, discovering the grey-backed Penguin classics - Forster, Sartre, Lawrence, Turgenev.

By 1976 I wanted some formal education. A friend told me about Hillcroft college for mature women in Surbiton - a tag to fill the trendy with dread. Founded in the Twenties by beneficent Mr (pork pies) Wall for the education of mill girls and the like, it was now a Council for National Academic Awrds college. I arrived at the grand Victorian mansion, smelt the polish in the sober, panelled hallway, and was hooked. I was offered a place on the humanities course, reading English literature, art history and the history of Western civilisation. The grant was mandatory, with a bit extra because I was 28 and had been earning. I was in seventh heaven.

Art history was taught by Doreen Ehrlich, who filled in a few thousand years of image making so well that I can still spot a Duccio at 50 paces. I might have done my thesis in art, but for Audrey Watson.

A woman straight out of an Agatha Christie novel - ex-Oxford, strong jaw, iron grey hair, growing deaf but refusing to acknowledge it, and an embonpoint bedecked with a series of huge brooches. Untrendy she may have been, but she could talk for two hours without notes on anything from Greek drama to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Bront , Lawrence, Plath - and, perhaps her greatest legacy, T S Eliot. I still never travel far from home without him. What I owe her - and Hillcroft, and the then government, which allowed such a well-funded college to exist- is inestimable.

I dedicated my second novel, Parlour Games, to Mrs Watson. She was by then retired, practically stone deaf and eyes not good, but she rang me from Wales to say that there were two things she secretly always wanted - to have a book dedicated to her, and a rose named after her... Anyone know a good horticulturist?


1948 Born Raynes Park, south London 1953-59 Cottenham Park infants and Old Central juniors, Wimbledon Common 1959-64 Joseph Hood secondary modern, Morden, Surrey 1964 Begins work as receptionist with art publisher Editions Alecto in Kensington 1976 Hillcroft college for mature women, Surbiton 1979 Daughter Bella born 1988 Pause Between Acts published. Wins SheJohn Menzies first-novel prize 2000 Ninth novel, Mrs Fytton's country Life, published. Hillcroft college, the only residential adult education college for women, celebrates 80th birthday with a three-day conference June 6-8.

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