My best teacher

29th December 2000 at 00:00
Val Rogers was my senior lecturer at Haileybury College and he brought history, which I was doing for A-level, to life in a challenging way.

He had been at Oxford before the war, a communist pacifist, and he knew Auden, Isherwood and all that gang. Then his brother was killed early in the war and so he dropped pacifism, joined the army and was decorated. He made another change and was ordained into the Church of England so he was a natural tilter at windmills by the time I knew him.

When we were discussing plays such as The Trial of a Judge by Stephen Spender, and Nazism and communism in Germany, we had to discuss all aspects of the subject and be clear why we thought as we did. It was education in the broadest sense.

When we started reading Spenser's The Faerie Queen, I thought, "Good God, this is the last thing I want to do". But he commanded us to listen and read it with such beauty and force that you realised - wow - this is language being used in an extraordinary way. It has remained a much loved poem for me. He also introduced me to Gerard Manley Hopkins and even today I still carry a copy of his poems around.

The Easter before I left, he took a party of us to Italy because he had been asked to preach at the Franciscan monastery at Assisi. He talked almost non-stop all the way there and back.

There were a few of us who had what I'd call a special rapport with him but others didn't really care for his approach. But the fact that he wasn't a safe pair of hands, that he taught me to question everything, has been invaluable.

When I first went to Cambridge, I used to go and see him sometimes, but then he went to Ireland to be a headteacher and we lost touch. I read history and planned to join the colonial office, but during my first year it became clear there weren't many colonies left to serve in. So I went back to the army, having done National Service before I went to Cambridge. When I retired in 1993 I went to Cambdia and was appalled to see how badly prepared our soldiers were to be part of the UN peacekeeping force so - this is where I drew from Val's tilting at windmills - I wrote a paper for the government on the management of UK contributions to the UN peacekeeping force.

I took my present job inspecting prisons for the government five years ago and my style has certainly been influenced by Val. He believed passionately that if you felt strongly about something you must speak out, but also that you had to be constructive and your criticism should be followed with a recommendation. Doing this job I have felt a real desire at times to talk things through with Val. Whatever he was saying came from a clear set of principles.

When I was working for the head of the army as chief staff officer in Omagh I had the chance to invite Val and his wife, Mary, from Portadown for dinner. There were several of us from the army and Lord Brookborough, a distinguished Northern Ireland politician. They started talking about Ireland and suddenly Val interjected to tell them, very charmingly, that they were talking absolutely nonsense.

Val's retired now and living in Oxford but I visit from time to time and sometimes when he is being particularly demanding and provocative, I feel I am right back in the classroom.

Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Sir David Ramsbotham was talking to Angela Neustatter

The story so far

1934 Born

1948 Haileybury college

1952-54 National Service

1954 Corpus Christi, Cambridge, reads history

1957 joins the army, becomes chief staff officer to head of the army. Promoted to general

1958 Marries Susan Dickinson. Two sons James, a banker, and Richard, playwright and teacher

1987 knighted

1993 Retires from the army

1993-5 Works as advisor to the United Nations and under Kofi Annan as chairman of the security council

1995 Appointed HM Inspector of Prisons

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