My Best Teacher - David Benedictus

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Cruelty and anti-Semitism punctuated his Eton schooldays, but the author of the Winnie-the-Pooh sequel was inspired by one teacher. Now he is cultivating creativity in others

I didn't like Eton. It was snobbish, and bullying was rife. At times, it was very cruel. But I think that might have been the same in all public schools in the 1950s. I'd gone to boarding school for five years before that, from the age of eight, which was a tough place, so that did prepare me. My parents were unaware I was unhappy - you hide such things because you feel it would be a great sense of failure. It cost a lot of money to send me to Eton and they were proud that I was there. So I kept quiet.

I survived my time mainly through writing and also by being quite witty. English was always a favourite subject; I enjoyed reading books and poetry, and when I was about 16 I had an English class run by a man called Claude Taylor. He used to read books to us and chose well. At the end of term we had to write a detailed critique of a novel. For the three terms I was in his class, I got the ultimate accolade of being "sent up for good": if you did a particularly good piece of work, you had to copy it out on to special paper and take it to the headmaster. If that happened three times, you got a prize - book tokens - which I exchanged for short stories by Maupassant, if I remember.

Mr Taylor was an inspirational teacher, as he clearly appreciated my critical skills; he read out examples of my work in class, which gave me some clout. But there is a little postscript to his story. Once, during the holidays, my parents and I went to a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in a small hall in Marlowe. And there playing the oboe in the orchestra was Mr Taylor. I thought this was very exciting as it meant that I could introduce him to my parents, but he was unforthcoming. It occurred to me that he would have regarded playing the oboe in an amateur orchestra as being rather beneath him; it cut into his image of himself.

I was one of the few Jewish children at Eton then, and that made me rather unusual. I was aware of a certain amount of anti-Semitism. I think I was fairly lonely, but that's just how it was. I wrote about my experience extensively in a novel called The Fourth of June, a satirical and savage attack on the school and its system. It was a bestseller in 1962, but there were great accusations of treachery, which I think I quite enjoyed.

It's difficult to say whether my schooling inspired me professionally. If I'd been to a more conventional establishment or a state school, I think I would have still ended up as a writer, because overriding everything has been a love of language. Eton gives you an effortless sense of superiority, and it also gave me a cause. I was very angry at what I saw around me, and clearly my early novel was a piece of revenge literature. I wouldn't have written that if I hadn't been at Eton.

I went on to study English at Oxford, then theatre studies at the State University of Iowa. Every July, I teach creative writing to American exchange students at Corpus Christi, Oxford, which I love. I'd like to think I've been someone's inspirational teacher. I think you can be, provided there is someone receptive in the class.

David Benedictus is the author of `Return to the Hundred Acre Wood', the authorized sequel to A.A. Milne's original Winnie-the-Pooh stories. He is also a director, radio producer, tour guide, racing tipster and drama and creative writing teacher. He was talking to Anne Joseph.

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