My Best Teacher - Jilly Cooper

6th March 2009 at 00:00
A sharp-tongued English mistress was hard on this author but popular nonetheless

I was wild and uncontrollable as a child. My teachers used to call me "the unholy terror", but it was probably just because I was homesick and missed my pony in Yorkshire.

I went to Godolphin, a girls' boarding school in Salisbury, and it was there I met Miss Aphra Lloyd, my English mistress. She had black hair and these wonderful slapping black Irish eyes - or at least I thought they were black. When I appeared on This is Your Life and she was among the guests, the first thing she said was that her eyes were blue, not black. That was very her.

Miss Lloyd filled the classroom with light. We worked hard for her, even though a lot of the literature was quite advanced. She had us reading The Mayor of Casterbridge and the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers (from The Spectator) at 11, and she made these characters come alive for us.

We loved each other, but I think she realised I was a bit of a pest. She was critical and frightening. I remember her sweeping down the classroom aisles like some monstrous black crow with her long teacher's gown and sharp tongue.

She'd make us memorise 100 lines of poetry a week, and if she caught us daydreaming, she'd suddenly make us recite great chunks of it to wake us up. Even now, poetry drifts in and out of my head that I remember from those school days.

She was nurturing me to go to Oxford, but I was desperate to get off with boys so I bullied my parents to send me to a crammer in Oxford for the last two terms of school. I was bored of boarding and frantic to get away. I was far too busy going out with boys to do any work and never did get into university. Instead, I became a cub reporter on the Middlesex Independent newspaper.

When I started writing, she'd send me postcards, encouraging me from afar. She was always so sparing with her praise, so it was total ecstasy when she actually said something nice about me.

I dedicated a book to her, an anthology of poetry and prose called The British in Love, which made her happy. But apparently she was horrified by my novel, Riders. She wrote to a friend saying what a shame it was that I'd descended into pornography.

Minette Walters (the crime novelist) also went to the same school and Miss Lloyd said she was amazed that two girls with so little imagination ended up doing so well.

I was sad to hear that Miss Lloyd died about five years ago. I didn't go to her funeral. I did love her, but I was hurt by that pornography remark.

Still, I was in floods of tears when I saw her on This is Your Life. She gave me a grounding in English literature and language that will live with me forever.

Jilly Cooper has sold more than 11 million books and is most famous for romantic romps such as 'Riders'. Her last novel, 'Wicked!', was about a boarding school. She was talking to Hannah Frankel.

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