My best teacher - David Yelland

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
The former Sun editor-turned-author lacked focus and good grades until one man instilled him with the confidence to express himself

I was a disruptive child. If anything happened in school, people would assume it was me. I was very quiet and withdrawn - but also, when I chose to, I would dominate in class. I would go from one extreme to the other.

I knew from an early age that there was something slightly different about me. I don't know why. When I was about 10, I suffered from alopecia, and my hair fell out and grew back again and again throughout my growing up. But I had a number of teachers who were incredibly kind to me. Mr Thomas was my form tutor at Signhills Junior School in Cleethorpes. He understood me and I remember him being very angry once, when I had been given the cane.

When I joined Brigg Grammar (now Sir John Nelthorpe School) in Lincolnshire, John Harding was head of English and I was in his class. He was the first teacher I met who had a love of serious literature and could see that I did as well.

I adored English, but I wasn't thought to be any good at it. I was bright, but I just couldn't concentrate - books excited me so much that I couldn't finish them. I would read the first few pages and then think about it for the rest of the day. I would also get very jealous of the writing. I remember reading The Great Gatsby and throwing it across the floor thinking, "I'll never write anything as good as that."

Mr Harding treated me as if I were the cleverest pupil in the class, even though sometimes my marks were at the bottom, and I started to read ferociously. He would give me small volumes of Dylan Thomas, (Joseph) Conrad and early Philip Larkin.

During class, he read in voices. A really precious memory is him reading the first chapters of Great Expectations in the voice of Pip. I was swept away: I was right there in the graveyard and I can still absolutely picture that scene.

Nobody at school thought I would be a journalist - I was so shy. I had a wig from the NHS in Leeds and it was terrible - so obviously a wig that I never should have worn it. I would sit at the back of the class, wearing a green parka with my hood up so that the other kids couldn't pull it off. I would wear that parka all around school, even in the summer.

I sort of worshipped Mr Harding and because his son, Tim, was my best friend, I was often at their house. It was my first exposure to an intellectual, liberal family - to BBC Radio 4, lots of books and general discussion - and that's where I ended up spending my later life.

They would have copies of The Guardian which, ironically - even though I was editor of The Sun - is my favourite paper. The walls were lined with books, which we didn't have at home. It was all there on the shelf, and all you had to do was go and read it. I would sometimes take books home with me. I found out later that they knew what I was up to but never said anything.

His influence on me was far greater than he would ever realise. I'm still writing, in a small way, to please Mr Harding. I always knew that I could write, and he did as well, but I never did it at school. It was a huge frustration. I had a creative soul inside me, but at that time I couldn't express it - I hadn't been given the tools. He saw that I did have an ability and it could be fostered by him encouraging me to read.

David Yelland was editor of 'The Sun' from 1998 to 2003. His debut novel for children, 'The Truth About Leo', is published by Puffin Books. He was talking to Meabh Ritchie.

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