My best teacher

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Looking back now, at the age of 63, it is peculiar to think that my life could have been completely different if it hadn't been for Harry Davies

I failed the 11-plus and went off to secondary modern school. After a year, out of the blue, I was plucked out and put into class 2D at High Pavement grammar school, Nottingham, which doesn't exist anymore. Then, it was the second-tier grammar school. Nottingham high school was the posh one.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was a sort of experiment. The headmaster of the grammar school, Harry Davies, had done a deal with the education committee whereby he picked a borderline 11-plus failure to take into the school, without telling his staff, to see what happened.

I have no idea why he chose me and I recall that at the time I was not particularly happy about it. Changing schools was quite a wrench because I had made friends at the first school and had a lot of catching up to do at the new one. By the time I arrived, everybody had been learning Latin for a year.

Once I was there, however, I adapted and got on with it and found I took to the more academic line quite well.

It was only towards the end of my time at the school, when I was called to Mr Davies's office to be told I had won an exhibition to Cambridge, that he told me the whole story of how I came to be there.

I was shocked. I suddenly felt a kind of vertigo. After I'd been to Cambridge, I realised even more what an extraordinary opportunity I'd been given by absolute luck. At that time the 11-plus was a life-defining operation which decided what your life would be like and what your horizons were. Looking back now, at the age of 63, it is peculiar to think that my life could have been completely different if it hadn't been for Harry Davies.

Some time after I'd left, I heard that Mr Davies had become chairman of the Nottingham county education committee. He was an imposing figure who exuded a great deal of energy and was not at all remote. He was tall, dark-haired and wore spectacles, and was a new-broomy sort of person. He was very affable,very approachable and probably very inspiring to the staff. I remember him sweeping into assembly in his gown.

I was never actually taught by him and only got to talk to him at the end of my school career. I had two offers of places at Cambridge and he suggested I took the one at King's because he thought the college was more suitable for an eccentric.

The other teacher who had a great influence on my future was Stanley Middleton, who taught me English in the sixth-form. He was special because he taught me how to read. He made literature seem important and come alive and introduced me to critics. He was an inspirational teacher who encouraged you to think for yourself.

He was rather laconic. He wasn't particularly charismatic, but he felt his subject was important and he made you feel it was important. It was because of his influence that I decided to read English at Cambridge.

After I left the school he gave up teaching, became a novelist and won the Booker Prize, I think in 1974, for a novel called Holiday. I saw him again once, at a sort of reunion, and he was even more laconic than before. He's written a lot of novels, all set in and around Nottingham, and I have read most of them. It's hard to know what he made of my career. I think he was pleased with the way things turned out. I never saw Harry Davies again after I left the school. I'm a very bad keeper- in-touch.

John Bird was talking to Pamela Coleman


1936 Born Nottingham

1949 Starts at High Pavement grammar school

1955-59 Reads English at Cambridge university

1959-61 Director at Royal Court Theatre

1961 Founds the Establishment Club with Peter Cook and John Fortune

1964 First TV appearance on Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life,

produced by Ned Sherrin

1986 Appears in TV adaptation of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole

1989 onwardsThe Two Johns with John Fortune

1991 onwards Writes for and performs in Rory Bremner TV series

1996 Bafta award for The Two Johns

2000 BBC TV comedy series, Chambers

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