My Best Teacher;Interview;Beryl Bainbridge

29th January 1999 at 00:00
Miss Peck was excessively thin, completely flat-chested and had a very distinctive hairstyle, parted in the middle with plaits wound in coils around her ears. She had a rather fat face and was pretty yellowish. She looked a bit like a creature from outer space. She was slightly elegant and wore a longish skirt showing bits of skinny leg and button shoes. It was impossible to tell her age. To me she seemed very old, but I suppose she was about 40. Like all the other teachers at Merchant Taylors' in Liverpool, she was unmarried - Miss Peck looked very much like a maiden lady.

She taught English, and I liked her because I enjoyed what she taught, and later because she was the only one who stood up for me when I was expelled.

My first real memory of feeling she was different was when she sent us off to read Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence at home. I'd read most of Lawrence by the time I was 12, thanks to Miss Peck. She also put me on to Rudyard Kipling, not just the poetry, but also Stalky and Co. I never read children's books. The nearest I read was Children of the New Forest, which I hated.

Our set books at school included George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and we did Shakespeare, of course. I didn't understand a word of it, though Miss Peck did try to explain. She enlivened Richard II, and I've always liked Richard II since. I remember learning one of his speeches about "struggling how I may compare this prison where I dwell..." It was lovely in adolescence to be able to go around being miserable and quoting Richard II.

I suppose I liked school. The building was lovely. It was built for boys in the 1500s and it had Elizabethan oak panelling and high ceilings and was set in a park in Blundell Sands on the outskirts of Liverpool. It was a public school. Right from the beginning I had a nickname. I was called Basher because I used to fight. I got told off for being unladylike.

We all wrote rude limericks and when it was my turn to take one home to illustrate it, I left it in my gymslip pocket and my Mum found it. Sex was never mentioned in our house and my mother just couldn't cope and took the offending rhyme straight to the headmistress. I was sent to Coventry at home, my brother wasn't allowed to speak to me, and I was made to sleep in the bathroom. At school my punishment was to walk around with a little book about the birds and the bees at all times, and the maths teacher wouldn't have me in the classroom. I was allowed to stay on till the end of term, but then I had to go.

I didn't know until long afterwards that Miss Peck pleaded for me to be given another chance, but Miss Williamson, the maths teacher, said "no". I was obviously a rotten apple and that was it.

Miss Williamson was a horror, a real cross patch, always snappy and a fiend not just to me but to everybody. She was a St Trinians kind of teacher with an Eton crop who wore a costume and tie.

Miss Peck was much more gentle. I was good at writing essays and she encouraged me. She talked a lot about style. I remember writing about a church outing and saying that the vicar had a reputation as grubby as his dog collar. She was very taken with that. I don't think she ever suspected I'd become a writer. A lot of us wrote all the time then. We didn't go out to play, because you might meet somebody not nice, and there was no telly, so we all wrote little stories. I wrote a full-length novel called Filthy Lucre when I was 12 or 13, which was published about eight years ago.

My parents' ambition for me had been to go to university. My father wanted me to be a doctor. I was sent to private elocution lessons - I remember Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street and Auntie Wainwright in Last of the Summer Wine, went to the same teacher.

But I had no more schooling after about 1312. I went off to a boarding ballet school after Merchant Taylors' but didn't like it and left after a year. Later, my father got me into the Liverpool Playhouse.

From time to time my name was in the papers and when I moved to Salisbury Rep I got a letter from Miss Peck, who was then living in Salisbury, asking me to look her up. I did. I went to see her in the house where she lived with her sister and had tea. It was all terribly polite and ladylike. She didn't seem to have changed at all. She never knew I became a writer because she died before I got down to serious writing.

Beryl Bainbridge, 64, author and playwright, was first an actress at the Liverpool Playhouse. She now lives in north London, has an honorary doctorate from Liverpool University and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize several times. She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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