My best teacher

1st June 2001 at 01:00
My best teacher was called Mr Steadman-Jones and he was head of the English department at Holland Park comprehensive. I arrived at the school halfway through the year, and I was a kind of reject from other schools, a hopeless case. I came from a very academic family and I was regarded as the black sheep. By the time I got into the sixth form I had four O-levels, one of which was art, and nothing much else. Then Mr Steadman-Jones took me under his wing.

He decided that he was going to get me into Oxford, come what may. The first thing was to make sure I had the basic matriculation requirements, so I had to do Latin - I had done it before but failed. In the exam I stopped halfway through, crumpled up my paper and threw it in the bin. He took it out, smoothed it, and said: "I'm going to hand this in." Somehow or other I scraped a pass. What he did with that piece of paper I have no idea. There is no way that I could have passed Latin O-level, but I did.

His great obsession was Jacobean drama and he handed over his enthusiasm to me. I read vast numbers of really obscure but interesting books. He got me into the habit of reading analytically. It was great fun and I loved writing essays for him. I think I got into Oxford purely on the strength of an essay that I wrote on the subject. Not only that, I got a scholarship, which was astounding, and meant I didn't need the matriculation requirements after all.

He turned my life around. Up until then I hadn't really expected to go to university. I quite liked the idea of writing, but without any kind of academic root to it. I had wanted to be an actress but I wasn't very good. I joined the National Youth Theatre and was there at the same time as Helen Mirren. One look at her quickly told me I was never going to be an actress.

Holland Park school was built on the site of an old mansion and most of it had been knocked down to make way for this huge, modern Sixties building, but the lodge was kept as the sixth form building. It had lovely tiles all over the place, a beauiful staircase and a garden. Entering the sixth form felt like going into this grove of academe, it was wonderful. It made me realise how important school buildings are.

To go to the school was a step up in the world from home. These days, most of our schools are a step down. Mr Steadman-Jones was in that tradition - he wouldn't accept anything other than the best. He was pretty waspish. If you did not do your homework nothing very bad would happen to you, but he would give you such a withering look. He looked exactly like an archetypal teacher that you would get if you went to central casting. He had elbow patches, tweeds and half glasses he would stare over the top of in a forbidding way. He had quite tufty, whiskery hair and a gruff Welsh accent.

He didn't like to play to the crowd or show off, like some English teachers do; he was reticent. But he was very warm; the warmth was in his enthusiasm. People who didn't like English didn't like him, but those who liked English all thought he was terrific.

I went to see him three times after I went to Oxford, but then he moved back to Wales and I lost touch with him. He died some time ago. I don't think he would have thought much of journalism. He probably thought that being an academic literary critic was the highest form of being.

Journalist Polly Toynbee was talking to Harvey McGavin

The story so far

1946 Born Isle of Wight

1957 Badminton school, Bristol

1962 Holland Park comprehensive, London

1966 St Anne's College, Oxford. Drops out. First novel, Leftovers, published

1968 Joins the Observer

1971 Moves to the US as editor of political magazine, Washington Monthly

1973 Returns to the Observer; then Guardian

1983 Contests Lewisham East as candidate for SDP

1988 Social affairs editor, BBC News

1995 Associate editor and columnist, the Independent

1998 Returns to Guardian

2001 Did Things Get Better?, a review of Labour's term in office, co-written with David Walker, published by Penguin


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