My best teacher

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
When I was eight, my parents sent me to an austere and dilapidated prep school outside Rugby. On the way in the car, my father put on dark glasses and pretended to listen to the cricket. I knew he was crying and I had seen him cry only once before, when my grandfather, Georgie, died. I wondered what I was in for. My mother chattered nervously and talked about the amazing facilities that the school would never reveal during my stay.

When they dropped me and drove away, the car made a sad crunching sound on the gravel. I stood sobbing in the quad until Miss Knight rescued me.

She took me and a boy called Moore, whose sister was a famous showjumper, to the linen room and gave us milk and biscuits. Apart from matron, a bitter and phlegmatic woman who smelt of gin, she was the only female influence in the school.

Miss Knight taught me English and art. I excelled in both, and failed miserably at everything else. On Monday mornings, to ease us into the horrors of the week ahead (Latin, Greek, algebra and so on ), Miss Knight read to us in a quiet, wavering voice.

She read us entire books in large instalments on those glorious Monday mornings. She led us into the world of "BB" (Denys Watkins-Pitchford) with readings of The Little Grey Men and Down the Bright Stream, and the wonderful Brendon Chase, now in print again (Jane Nissen Books).

She took us to Narnia and left some of us there behind the wardrobe. When she did all the voices in the Professor Branestawm books we howled with laughter. She gave us The Hobbit, then capped it with T H White's The Sword in the Stone (perhaps my favourite children's book) and finally, just for fun, the brilliant Uncle books by J P Martin. So skilled was she as a reader that not a head nodded, nor a foot shuffled.

At night, in the dormitory, while the French master squeaked down the corridors on his wooden leg, trying to catch us talking after lights out, we made up our own stories and whispered them in the manner of Miss Knight. Mine was about a character called Little Glumf, a sort of Borrower, but equipped with superhuman powers. He slept in a matchbox (shades of Mrs Pepperpot) and flew in a model aeroplane (lik the Little Grey Men).

In her long skirts and high ruffled collars, Miss Knight reminded me of an ostrich. She blushed easily and sometimes her voice seemed to warble and skip octaves, particularly when angry. Not that she was often angry with us. We loved her too much to play her up, although once I failed to show up at "extra" art and was ticked off and told football was not for aspiring artists.

On Wednesday afternoons we had a double art period, when I could demonstrate my skills and bathe in Miss Knight's warmth. She decided I should take on bigger projects, to spend weeks, rather than minutes, on a painting or drawing. I was deliriously happy, when at the age of nine, I was awarded the school art prize for my illustrations to "Uncle Tom Cobley and All". My parents had it framed and hung it in the loo.

Emboldened by this recognition, I revealed my dream to become an artist and was surprised when my parents became upset and threatened to send me to a more scholarly institution.

This threat was later carried out and I was moved to a modern and better-equipped school.

My new art teacher was strictly a graphics man and held my work in little or no esteem. Armed with a wide brush and a tin of white emulsion, he used to flounce around the pristine and sterile art room and paint out pictures that displeased him. I fell into disrepair and abandoned art until he left three years later. I pined for Miss Knight. She was an inspirational teacher, and I shall never forget her.

The story so far

1960 Born in Coventry

1978-79 Articled solicitor, leaves to become an illustrator

1983 First children's book, The Opopogo: my journey with the Loch Ness monster, wins two Scottish Arts Council awards

From 1987 Builds reputation as political cartoonist. Cartoons appear in Scotland on Sunday, the Scotsman, the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, Vox and the New Yorker

1993 The Last Polar Bears, first of a series featuring his dog Roo, published by Puffin

1998 Next Roo book, The Last Gold Diggers, wins a Smarties gold medal

2000 Animated film of The Last Polar Bears shown on ITV at 9.55-10.30am on Christmas Day


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