My best teacher - Anthony Browne

24th September 2010 at 01:00
A gowned master switched the children's laureate on to the potential of literature

I went to Whitcliffe Mount Grammar School in Cleckheaton (West Yorkshire) and I was quite good academically, particularly at English and maths. I was also good at sport and that helped me a lot, because I was small for my age and felt a little bit of an outsider. But being good at sport helped me not to be bullied.

I was very close to my brother, who is a year-and-a-half older than me. A lot of my friends were his older friends and I got to know them before I started at the school. I used to go along when they had rugby practise and play with them. That helped to ease the transition to secondary school.

My English teacher, when I was about 14 and 15, was Frank Beckwith. I didn't think so at the time, but looking back he was probably quite young.

In those days, all the staff wore gowns to teach. It made them seem distant and strict or unfriendly. But he was completely the opposite and very relaxed. His gown nearly always had holes in it, his collar was frayed and his tie wasn't tied very tightly. He was often unshaven - it was a scruffy look, I suppose. Partly that helped to make me sympathetic towards him, but it was also the way he taught.

He was obviously very passionate about English and he made literature very real and relevant to us. He was an actor as well and we used to go along to see him in plays. A group of us started going to the theatre then, and it opened up our eyes to the possibilities of English.

He could be a little moody sometimes. I don't know whether he was hungover from time to time, but he could sometimes be quite ratty with us.

We were studying Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and the poem Sohrab and Rustum by Matthew Arnold at school. I was interested, but even then they seemed a little distant. At the same time he was telling us about Beckett and Pinter and he introduced us to all these people who weren't being taught at the school at the time. He read extracts and acted them out.

He encouraged us to go to the cinema as well. There were a lot of good British films about Northern working-class life. I remember Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. He would tell us to see the films but he would also say: "Why not read the book as well?" I found him inspirational in terms of opening our eyes to what was beyond English literature at the school.

In a sense, my brother was probably another of the best teachers I ever had. He went on to become a geography teacher and retired only two years ago.

Because he was the older one he had to do everything first, so I learnt a lot from seeing how he behaved or coped. I idolised him although we were very competitive. Even when we would draw, we would take the drawings to my mother and ask, "Which one is best?" She would never say, bless her.

The one thing we used to do which wasn't competitive was play the Shape Game: one person draws a shape and the other person thinks about what it might be and adds another shape. Playing that inspired me to be creative and to carry on being creative in later life.

Author and illustrator Anthony Browne is the children's laureate and was the first British illustrator to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award for children's literature. He was talking to Meabh Ritchie.

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