My best teacher

15th June 2001 at 01:00
At Sunningdale, a boarding prep school I went to in 1944, my classics master was a man called Mr Ling. I think his name was Gerald but to us he was always Mr - the idea of knowing his Christian name would have been unthinkable.

He had been wounded in the First World War and had lost the use of his right hand. He seemed unbelievably old, even though he was probably about 50. He was terrifying, and his lessons were incredibly rigorous. He would walk round the class and if he thought you weren't concentrating he would grab the hair at the back of your neck and twist it.

When you had done your work you went up one by one to his desk and stood there while he looked at it. If a phrase in your Latin offended him, he would scrawl through it, back and forth with his left hand, until his pen had gone through four or five pages of preceding work while you were told what an idiot you were.

But you knew all along that all he really cared about was that you should do well. When I tried for a scholarship to Eton, he came with us. There were three days of exams and one knew that he was sitting around in some cafe or on a bench waiting to take you back to school. It was like being an athlete and he was your coach - you had gone through all the agonies of training and this was like the Olympics.

It was nice going back to the school when I was on television and quite well known. Mr Ling was pleased with that, but it didn't impress him as much as getting one's gerund right. As with many teachers of that generation, the school was completely his life.

After Eton, I went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in my second year I met Arthur Sale. He had been born into quite a poor family in Nottingham, got into Nottingham grammar school and read English at Nottingham University. But by his mid-thirties the only job he could get was teaching English on a correspondence course. In the mid-Fifties he was living in a bungalow he had built in Girton village, earning practically nothing. He died last year, and once told me that ntil very late in his life he never earned more than pound;1,000 a year.

He was always in the university library tea room, and lots of people knew him. But nobody thought of him as anything other than nice Arthur Sale who does correspondence courses and is always in the tea room - until John Stevens, the director of English, realised his ability to relate to people and his quite extraordinary knowledge of English literature, and asked him to take on the English undergraduates at Magdalene.

He knew everything about English literature but he was a man without theories, which is the greatest quality in a teacher.

Arthur always wanted to know what you thought. And instead of saying "you're right" or "you're wrong", he would say "if that's what you think you should read such and such". Education means leading out and that's what he was doing. It's much better to discover you are wrong than to be told it. He was a brilliant teacher.

I met my wife, Christina, at Cambridge and she and Arthur became great friends. We got married in a registry office, with Arthur and his wife, Nell, as our witnesses.

What I got from Mr Ling was the ability to get down to something, but Arthur Sale inspired my interest in exploring new things. There are but a few people in one's life like that.

Author and broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne was talking to Harvey McGavin


1935 Born London

1948-53 Attends Eton

1955-60 Magdalene College, Cambridge

1961-3 Theatre critic, The Spectator

1962-87 Chairs University Challenge for BBC TV

1977 Presents The Christians for Granada TV

1987 Makes television documentaries including Victorian Values, and The Great Moghuls and fine arts quiz Connoisseur

1993 Publishes Encyclopedia of Britain, longest of his 19 books, which range from local history to children's books

1996 Honorary fellow Magdalene

2001 Launches (see Humanities Curriculum Special, June 29)

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