My best teacher;Interview;Howard Jacobson

1st January 1999 at 00:00
When I was nine, one of my teachers at Bowker Vale Primary School in Blackley, near Manchester, sent a letter to my mother which she put in a frame and treasures to this day. It was from a lady called Aster Herman who was so impressed by one of my essays that she wrote: "Howard has great potentialities in English." I grew up with this letter standing on the mantelpiece in my bedroom.

I was a bit of a swot at primary school, and introverted. I am the eldest of three: I have a brother, Stephen, four years younger, and a sister, Marilyn, six years younger. I felt their arrivals very strongly, especially that of my brother, who everyone kept insisting was a very pretty child. Until then I'd held sway in a house full of women. My father was away because of the war, and I had the rapt attention of my mother, my mother's mother and my mother's sister. I danced for them and sang for them and told them amazingly clever jokes. When somebody else arrived on the scene it was a big shock.

The essay which had so impressed Miss Herman was rather worthy - it was about the importance of newspapers - but Miss Herman, who was a student teacher then, said she was going to take it back to college as a showpiece. My family have never been readers of newspapers, but that didn't stop me from having an opinion about them. I have opinions now on books I've never read. Opinions, I'm not short of.

I passed the 11-plus and went to Stand Grammar School, in Prestwich, which was a cause of much celebration at home, and I regained my position as number one son. At secondary school there were a number of memorable teachers all of whom, except one, taught English.

My first English teacher, whose name I cannot remember, was, I thought, dashing and clever and wonderfully louche. He, too, was impressed by my essays and asked if I would like to contribute to the school magazine. When, because I was intensely shy, I replied, "l don't know, sir", he was very angry and accused me of having no ambition. He left the school under a cloud. The rumour was that he had run off with one of the pupils from the girls' school, which made him seem very exotic to us.

Then there was Mr Ogden, the father of John Ogden the pianist. We called him Joe Bogg, which we thought fantastically amusing. He was a very interesting man, very serious, and I enjoyed being taught by him. We discovered he had suffered from schizophrenia and had written a book about it. We found a copy. It was very well written and upsettingly frank about the condition, including stuff about sexual dreams. We were unbelievably giggly about all that.

One of the things Mr Ogden taught us that stays in my mind was Charlotte Bront 's punctuation system which is, if I remember rightly, a colon followed by three semi-colons. He described it as the classic form of the English sentence.

Mr Ogden helped me through O-levels, and then Mr Clayborough came along. He was terrific. He wore the sort of tweed suits Alan Bennett wears. He was a big man, and funny. He made a big impression, and a lot of us modelled ourselves on him.

Somewhere between O- and A-levels I was taught by Alexander Baird, a small Scottish man, who was mad on William Golding and Graham Greene. I think he went on to write a novel.

My final English teacher at Stand was Mr Parkin, whose long white fingers I can still see on my desk as he leaned over me. He didn't have charisma, but he took a very special interest in me. He introduced me to F R Leavis, and he was the reason I ended up going to Downing College at Cambridge. He was a Downing man himself, and Downing men are a very special breed. Many of them are austere and introverted, and I think in me he spotted a fellow spirit.

But the teacher I probably admired - and liked - more than any of them was a history teacher called John Hunter. History was the other subject I was good at. Mr Hunter encouraged me and made me feel I could write. I was particularly keen on the 19th century, which became a passion at Cambridge, and had I gone on to do research I would have done an English and history project about English radicalism in the 19th century.

All the teachers I remember were people who set an example. You aspired to be them; they didn't aspire to be you, like some modern teachers do, or try to ingratiate themselves by talking to kids about football.

Howard Jacobson, 56, worked as a lecturer in England and Australia before becing a full-time novelist and critic. His latest book, 'No More Mr Nice Guy', was recently published by Jonathan Cape.

He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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