My best teacher;Interview;Chris Smith

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Dr Roy Park, who was the deputy director of studies in English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where I was an undergraduate, had an electrifying effect on me and on my appreciation of English literature.

I remember particularly the first seminar I had with him. Three or four of us went to see him one autumn afternoon in his room, up a couple of flights of stairs in one of the older Victorian parts of the college, for what was supposed to be an hour's session on romantic poetry - particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge. Two-and-a-half hours later, having listened to him describing with such incredible enthusiasm his own vision of what romanticism in literature meant, and the way in which Wordsworth and Coleridge embodied this in their poetry and in the rest of their writing, we came out walking on air.

During the seminar he paced around the room, picked out volumes of poetry and read bits to illustrate a point. He crouched in his armchair and then leapt up to emphasise something. He completely threw himself into the subject he was talking about.

I'd had an interest in these poets before, but Roy Park opened my eyes in ways I had never dreamed of. He had the ability to transmit real enthuasiasm and to make his students share that enthusiasm that is to my mind what great teaching is about.

That seminar is one of the fundamental reasons why I subsequently did my own research for a PhD on Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Roy Park and I were rapidly on first name terms and became good friends. He'd be about 30 then. We shared a particular passion for hill walking and the Highlands of Scotland, which is where he now lives for much of the year.

We've been up a number of hills together. I stayed with him and his family one summer in the north-west of Scotland and we went up a mountain called Liathach in a place called Torridon on the coast. Coming down via a long gulley full of small rumbling stones he shot off ahead down this scree shoot and arrived at the bottom a good half hour before I did, coming down much more cautiously. He has quite a bit of the daredevil in him.

A short man with a beard and a strong Scottish accent, he is a real bundle of energy. As a teacher, two things about him really came across: his intelligence and his bubbling enthusiasm that applied to almost everything he did.

He was passionate about music, and I remember him saying to me: "You mean you've never discovered the late chamber music of Schubert?" and getting really fired up about how wonderful this was. And, indeed, when I went away and listened to it, I discovered he was right. He encouraged me, too, to be interested in engraving and painting which he talked a lot about. He was a very civilising influence. He spurred us all on.

He came from a working-class background in Glasgow and when he moved on to become director of studies in English at University College, Oxford, one of the first things he did was to go round state schools and persuade them to encourage their best pupils to apply to Oxford, which they did. And as a result the university got a whole flow of applications from very good pupils who ended up getting extremely good degrees, having had opportunities they would not otherwise have had. He was very pro-active in shifting the culture of Oxford in those days.

I owe a lot of my interest in and enthusiasm for English literature, and Romanticism in particular, to Roy Park. He is someone I have always admired. He retired recently, but we still keep in touch. I think he was pleased when I became Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

He occasionally drops me a note about something that I've said or done to say: "Well done." Or: "How could you?" Chris Smith, 47, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was educated at Cassiobury Primary School, Watford; George Watson's College, Edinburgh; Cambridge University and Harvard. His mother was a teacher and his father a civil servant. He has been Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, London, since 1983. His partner, Dorian Jabri, former director of communications at the Teacher Training Agency, is chief executive of the charity, Tools for Schools.He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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