My best teacher

26th January 2001 at 00:00
I was born in Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire, 80 years ago. My father was a flour miller, whose mill stood on the Cam, and I and my brothers and sister lived in the mill house.

I didn't go to school until I was nine because of illness - the kidney disease nephritis. I was in bed and had no special tuition, but I read a great deal before I went to school. This was the Perse school for girls in Cambridge, five miles away.

School was a shock to me. For instance, I had never been made to stand in line. When we lined up to go into prayers, I felt like a prisoner. I was bewildered and rather hostile. I think I was also independent-minded. In my first arithmetic exam I got 4 out of 100. I didn't mind a bit.

The two teachers who have remained with me most taught French: Mademoiselle Malandain, whom we called Maddy M, and who taught the little ones, and Mademoiselle Barth s, Maddy B.

Maddy M was rather volatile and explosive. Someone committing a horrible solecism in French might get a box on the ear. This never happened to me. I wasn't brilliant, but I was at least one of the half a dozen at the top of the class.

When we were older, the really impressive teacher, Maddy B, took us. She was passionately French, well read in her own literature and in English. She was a great patriot - in those days, just before the Second World War, patriotism could still seem natural and uncomplicated. Here was someone who gave us the experience of a patriotism not our own. She introduced us to another European culture, deeply felt. It was wonderful to be taught by her.

Maddy B came from the south of France; she was very dark and severe-looking until she smiled. She was always dignified, giving the impression of some statue that had just stepped off its plinth. I remember her use of her pince-nez, which hung on a retractable gold chain attached to a decorative button on the bosom of her dress.

She spoke to us only in French, and we had to reply in the same language. When we red Racine or Corneille, as we did round the class, she could foresee the approach of the great classic speeches. Then she would take that speech herself. I think she probably couldn't bear to hear one of us read it aloud less than adequately.

I suppose she was rather old-fashioned in her teaching, and certainly hard on the weaklings among us. But her enthusiasm carried us forward and we became terribly good at French. In the late Thirties, the Perse school entered a competition promoted by the French state. We won it. We went to the Mansion House in London to receive the award, a S vres vase, from the hands of the French president himself. He was on a state visit, arriving in London by train.

Maddy B, who was, in a dignified way, almost beside herself with joy, found only one thing that irritated her - that the British government would not consider changing the name of Waterloo station.

I had left school by the time of the fall of France in 1940; I could only imagine her anger and grief. After the war, she retired to the south of France. I believe one of her devoted former pupils went to live with her. For myself, I can still at least read French easily, if it's not too slangy and modern. And, ever since she taught me, France and French history and culture have had a lasting fascination.


1920 Born Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire

1929-39 Attends Perse school for girls, Cambridge

1939-42 Reads English and history at Girton College, Cambridge

1945-58 Scriptwriter and producer for the BBC's school broadcasting department

1958 Second novel, Tom's Midnight Garden, wins Carnegie Medal

1961-67 Children's books editor at Andre Deutsch

1978 The Battle of Bubble and Squeak wins Whitbread Award

1997 OBE for services to children's literature

2000 Play of Tom's Midnight Garden produced by Unicorn Theatre, touring from this March; film (U) on general release

Author Philippa Pearce was talking to Aleks Sierz

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