My best teacher

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Ebeneezer Titus Ebenorufon Fury taught Latin at Wirral grammar and was, I believe, the first African teacher in a British grammar school. He was a magnetically powerful man who believed in the African method of teaching, which was basically to beat it into us. He kept discipline with the aid of a slipper and was very formal, very magnificent. We were all terrified of him.

His classes were formal; he always wore a gown. Education was chalk and talk in those days. I got beaten several times, but my misdemeanours were minor. I can remember Mr Fury angrily saying to me, "Jones, you were dragged up through the gutter", but I can't remember why.

I never learned much Latin because I always resented having to study it. It was compulsory because in those days the Oxford and Cambridge admission system demanded it. I found the subject boring and spent my time in class slumped reading a book. Mr Fury's nickname for me was Senex (old man). We weren't friends, but I respected him. He was frightening, but likeable and popular.

I never got my Latin O-level, and my first set of A-levels were rather feeble so I retook them while working as a fitter's mate at a power station and then managed to get into Edinburgh University to do a zoology degree. It was in Edinburgh I realised there was a big world out there about which I knew nothing.

Ebeneezer Fury was studying law while he was teaching us part-time to finance his own studies, and in 1962 or 1963 he went back to Sierra Leone, just after independence, and became the attorney general there. Then, of course, things began to go wrong rather quickly and he was fired.

I visited Sierra Leone in the mid-Seventies, some years after I had left school and been to university. One of the reasons I went was in the hope of coming across Mr Fury. I asked around and people were rather coy about talking about him because under the dictatorship he had not beeen very popular, but I finally tracked him down.

It was tragic, because he had changed from being this magnificent, 10ft-tall figure breathing fire to being a grey-haired and bent old man living in a hut made of corrugated iron. Of course, he didn't recognise me, but we talked and he remembered the school well.

There is a wonderful story about Dylan Thomas: somebody goes back to his old school and asks the schoolmaster, "Do you remember young Thomas?" "Remember him?" replies the teacher. "I remember him by thousands." It's the same with my students: I have taught thousands of them and I certainly don't remember them all individually.

Some years after my visit, the story of Ebeneezer Fury ended in a very African way. I live in Camden Town in London and a man from the council came round to see me about some boring thing to do with planning. He was an African and his name was Johnson, which is a common Sierra Leonian name. I asked if he came from Sierra Leone and if he knew Mr Fury. He looked startled and said he did and, yes, Mr Fury was well known. He explained that Mr Fury had ended up in a mental home, where he had been murdered.

That this tremendously hopeful, enthusiastic young teacher in the Fifties ended up being murdered in a lunatic asylum really summarises the tragedy of Sierra Leone. If he'd stayed a teacher he might still be around.

Steve Jones was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far. 1944 Born Aberystwyth 1962 Studies zoology at Edinburgh University 1965 Captures first snail at Inchnadamph, Scotland 1969-72 Research fellow in population genetics at University of Chicago 1972-78 Teacher at Royal Free Hospital Medical School, London 1978 onwards Teacher at University College London 1988 Appointed professor of genetics at UCL 1991 Delivers BBC Reith Lecture 1993 The Language of the Genes is published. Wins Rhone-Pulenc prize 1996 Presents BBCTVseries, In the Blood 1997 Wins Royal Society Faraday Medal 1999 Almost Like a Whale is published

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