My best teacher

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Jazz Aked taught English as if it was carpentry. He taught us how to parse a sentence. He taught us the parts of speech. He taught us the art of composition. And if your composition was regarded as good, he would get you to read it out - and the result is the foundation of what I laughingly call my career.

We called him Jazz because he loved jazz and talked about it. I was 13 or 14 when I first met him, and his great influence on my life was when I was between 14 and 15.

The only thing I was really good at was English. I gradually got worse at everything else but stayed good at English, mainly because of his influence. He was very patient with people who didn't have a knack for the subject. I was inevitably one of his pets because I got it quite quickly. He would have a spelling bee at the end of class and the boy who got the most right got off early and was the first down to the sweet shop to get a frozen lolly on a stick. I won often enough to become very unpopular, until I learned the knack of losing occasionally.

I was in the wrong school. Sydney technical high school was a very mathematical school and I had a reverse gift for mathematics. I should have gone to Sydney high. I had a scholarship to go there but didn't want to go because my friends from primary school were going to Sydney tech. I was no good with my hands.

It occurred to me in later years that perhaps Jazz Aked was in the wrong school, too. He should have been working with pupils who had more of a knack for what he was teaching. But he was dedicated. He was full of suspicion when the new kind of teaching started to come in and pupils were encouraged to do projects and paste things on to pieces of cardboard and so on. He did his duty and carried out the new curriculum, but he thought it was time wasted from what we should have been doing, which was learning to construct an English sentence.

Reading out my compositions in class came easy to me. It was pretty hard to stop me; I was a natural performer. I can remember reading out an essay I wrote about being in primary school when it was caught in a bush fire. Some of the episodes I wrote about I put into my autobiography.

Jazz was very good on building vocabulary. We did lots of tests on similes and antonyms, creative exercises that stocked my memory. He was a natural sub-editor. He was very good at going through a sentence and explaining where you had said something twice, or not said enough. He didn't write creatively himself, but he wrote a very elegant sentence in a very clear hand.

He was wonderfully uninterested in sports. He would turn us loose on the football field and go off and read a book. He looked on with sympathy as my marks in other classes withered away so I barely got my leaving certificate. I'm not sure he thought I'd get to university at the rate I was going, but he suggested that, as I was good at reading and writing, I should do something with that. I studied English, among other subjects, at Sydney University, but I majored in psychology, and eventually came to England and read English at Cambridge.

I saw Jazz again 20 years later when I went back to Australia. He hadn't changed a bit. He is one of those men who looks permanently young and fit. He had followed my work, which was extremely flattering, and I think he'd noted his influence in my correctly constructed sentences.

Author and broadcaster Clive James was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1939 Born in Sydney, Australia

1953-57 Attends Sydney technical high school

1957-61 Studies at Sydney University

1961Assistant editor of literary page on Sydney Morning Herald

1962-64 Odd jobs in London

1964-66 Reads English at Cambridge University; president of Footlights

1972-82 Television critic on the Observer

1983 onwards Hosts various TVshows, including Clive James on TV and Saturday Night Clive, and writes several books

2001 June, publication of Even as We Speak and Reliable Essays; launch of website www.welcome; July, Even as We Speak, Radio 4 series

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