My Best Teacher;Interview;Brian Aldiss

5th March 1999 at 00:00
My first school, St Peter's, was a thoroughly bad one. This was back in the mid-1930s when there were no inspectors, and any idiot could set up his own prep school. Unfortunately, it was my first experience of formal education; I boarded there from the age of seven until I reached 11. Although I hated it, the surroundings were quite pleasant: it was on the Norfolk coast.

The teachers may have been incompetent, but I was pretty chuffed with myself because I developed an interest in dinosaurs and I used to hold lessons in this subject. I was only eight at the time! We were all imprisoned in one big classroom, so I would give the children lessons in the ages of the world, of course concentrating on the age of the dinosaurs. They all listened and were keen, taking notes diligently. I can't remember much about the lessons that the headmaster, Humphrey Fenn, gave. He was a terrible oleaginous creature, a slimebag. But he did teach me to hate authority.

My next school was Framlingham College, where I boarded again for a couple of years. It was a nasty, sadistic school. Fortunately, I was in the junior school, which wasn't as brutal as the senior school. I acquired the nickname "The Professor", because I rigged up various gimmicks to entertain the kids. When you opened my locker, a propeller would fly out and whirl around the room. I was academically very bright there and got good results in my exams, so I suppose there must have been some good teachers.

But the gulf between the teachers and the pupils was enormous because the staff were so brutal, handing out regular beatings. Adolf Hitler came to my rescue. He invaded Poland in the nick of time. I've always found it very hard to think badly of the Fuehrer, as I know I should do, because he rescued me from Framlingham. My father sensibly decided that we shouldn't live on the coast of Norfolk where we could have been bombarded, shelled, bombed or invaded.

We moved to Devon and I then went to a much better school - West Buckland, on the fringes of Exmoor. I loved it and still keep in touch: I'm now their vice-president. All the teachers were extremely good. It was greatly to the credit of the staff that they kept us all so happy, because the conditions were spartan: food was scarce and the school was poorly heated. But the masters and the boys were united in hardship.

I can name four very good teachers. There was the headmaster, Sammy Howells. He was excellent at teaching English and English grammar. He had a stinging, sarcastic tone that could reduce the toughest boys to tears- which he loved to do. Everyone was scared of him. Sammy was a good teacher but a shit.

It was a pleasure to be in Taffy Davies's class; we could have a laugh with him. He taught us to sing and play rugger, and he was a chemistry and physics master. He obviously enjoyed teaching.

I was taught English by an Irish conscientious objector, a man called Fay. He absolved me from the weekly essay, and asked me to submit a story instead. God, what a treat! I can't remember what those stories were like but there was one he read aloud to the class and then he fixed me with his gimlet gaze and said, "If you go on like this, Aldiss, you'll be another Evelyn Waugh!" I've never forgotten that first precious praise.

But my great supporter was Harold Boyer, my housemaster. He taught almost anything as you went up through the school: history, German, French. He was of German descent, which was why he wasn't fighting in the war. He was a strange-looking chap with bulging eyes, but he was terribly funny. He was a bit of an actor, and he would walk around the classroom punching his fist into his palm, saying "Facts, we must have facts. Plenty of facts in your essays!" He was also totally dedicated to the school and the pupils. He wrote to me while I was with the army in Burma. After the war we became close friends: he was then an inspector of schools.

Boyer encouraged my writing. I would make corny speeches to the Phoenix Society, which he ran. He also commissioned me to write the material and the compere's script for the house concert. He was the first person to have faith in me; he was the best of all my teachers. That relationship continued until his death. After he died, I went with his widow to open the Harold Boyer House at West Buckland, memorialising his name.

Brian Aldiss was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, in 1925. After serving in the Royal Signals in the Far East, he settled in Oxford. He is the author of more than 50 books, including 'The Brightfount Diaries', a science-fiction trilogy called 'Hellconia', a series of books based on his wartime experiences called 'The Horatio Stubbs Saga', and a critical study of science fiction called 'Billion Year Spree and the Squire Quartet'. He has just published a memoir about his school days, wartime and writing life in 'The Twinkling of an Eye' (Little Brown pound;20). He was talking to Francis Gilbert

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today