My Best Teacher;Interview;Magnus Mills

12th February 1999 at 00:00
I failed my 11-plus because I took things literally. The teacher in charge said, "You can look at your papers now", which is what I did. I sat there reading the thing and then after 20 minutes I glanced round and saw that everyone was writing like blazes. I don't know if that was why I failed - maybe I deserved to - but I do take things a bit too literally.

I was in the top stream of the secondary school and that seemed to suit me. I cruised through my CSEs and then I went to another school to do my A-levels - Filton High School in Bristol.

I got quite relaxed about my A-levels and consequently didn't get very good grades: a C, a D and an E. I love history but you wouldn't know that from my A-level result - it was my worst grade. I was so interested in the Stuarts - I could have told you anything about James I - but I completely neglected the Tudors, whom I didn't like very much. All the questions in the exam were about the Tudors.

In English there were about eight of us and we had several teachers - all women - who were very competent but for some reason didn't last more than three months. About halfway through the syllabus this very young woman burst in and asked "Awright?" in a Cockney accent. Her name was Jenny Lewis, she had short hair and wore trousers. She told us that she and another teacher were going to change the dress code by wearing trousers all the time.

I was quite impressed. She just had this way about her - she was modern. I can still picture what she looked like. This was 1971, the height of women's lib, just before glam rock. She always wore eye shadow - either blue or green.

She had been teaching in the East End of London, so in comparison we were like pussy cats. her enthusiasm was brilliant. She was obsessed with poetry and she would go on and on about William Blake. When she was a child, instead of learning nursery rhymes, her father had made her learn poems by William Blake, so she could recite "The Tyger" when she was six. If you wrote poetically - you used so many syllables in a sentence or made it scan - she would notice that and comment on it.

She taught us not to have two sentences with exactly the same rhythm - they sound terrible. You have to mix the rhythm up, have a long sentence at the beginning of a chapter then a short one, then a medium one. Jenny hammered that into us, the idea that you have to imagine the music of poetry when you are writing prose. I would say she gave me my poetic ear.

We were doing Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience when she said "You know what this is about, don't you? It's about sex." That was a real eye-opener. Then we did Milton - Paradise Lost books I and II - and we loved all that. We also did Swift and the satirists. Having it spelt out to you line by line by someone who knew what they were talking about was wonderful. She used to make me read my essays out in front of the class.

I don't remember her setting us tons of homework, which was another reason why I liked her. I really think that homework should be made illegal - I'm dead against it. It's terrible to have to spend all day at school and then go home and do more work. Kids have got their own things to do when they get home. I was making models and building things in the garage. I always had lots of projects on the go.

Many years after leaving school I got in touch with an old friend, Alison, at a school reunion. Some more years went by, my book came out, and I was invited to the Cheltenham literary festival. Because Alison lives in Cheltenham, I was going to stay at her home. She rang our old school to see if she could find out where Jenny was. It turned out she left the school shortly after we did, but she went back there again last year.

So when I came to do my question-and-answer session, she was there in the audience - the first time I had seen her since 1972. I had an idea Alison was fixing something up, so I wasn't totally surprised but it was very nice to see her. She was still into preaching poetry. When I was talking to her afterwards, I could see she still had that sparkle in her eye. Now we are on each other's Christmas card list.

Magnus Mills's first novel, 'The Restraint of Beasts', a blackly comic tale inspired by time spent working as a fencer in rural Britain, was nominated for last year's Booker prize. Magnus, 44, recently gave up his job as a London bus driver to write full time. He reviews radio programmes for the 'Independent' and his second novel will be published in the autumn.He was talking to Harvey McGavin

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