My Best Teacher;Interview;Michael Holroyd;Features amp; Arts

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Peter Spanoghe was an extraordinary, intuitive teacher in what I think was a non-vintage period in teaching in Britain, shortly after the war. Unfortunately I didn't encounter him until towards the end of my career at Eton which can best be described as "discreet".

Peter Spanoghe taught languages, but he brought in history and literature as well. He told a story and you wanted to know what happened next. From having not been very distinguished in class, suddenly I was top in French. Normally I was quite bored in lessons, but he made them sing. I don't know how he did it; it was like a conjuring trick. He pared back the cuticle of boredom.

His subjects were German, French and English and he slipped easily between them depending on what happened during the lessons, what people responded to. Lessons didn't seem to be pre-planned in a didactic way; they had an evolutionary quality.

Until I was taught by Peter Spanoghe, I didn't know I had a talent for languages. I had been somewhat paralysed with shyness because my mother spoke seven languages and danced on tables and exchanged jokes with waiters with a glass of champagne in her hand and did all the things that make a 14 or 15-year-old acutely embarrassed. Mr Spanoghe released me from my shyness. It was as if he had a magic key. He was quick-witted and made lessons fun. I wasn't frightened of making a fool of myself. He made you laugh, so it didn't matter if you said something incorrect because that was part of the trial and error of the lesson.

Although he walked with a pronounced limp, he was nevertheless one of the most active people in the school. His whole body was full of vitality. He would lean forward and look you straight in the eye. He was married to a beautiful woman in a wheelchair. He left the school soon after I did. I heard there had been some scandal and Eton, which was curiously Puritan and priggish in those days, asked him to leave. He remarried and I learned some years later that he had had an operation and his leg worked again.

I saw him once in the street in Chelsea and I wanted to go up and say thank you, but that old shyness that he had once allowed me to get rid of, returned and I very much regret that I didn't speak to him. Last year when I was coming towards the end of my family history I thought I'd check to see if his name was in the London telephone book. It was and I rang but there was no answer, so I wrote. His widow got in touch with me and said he had died three or four months before, so I missed him a second time.

As well as his teaching, I should like to have thanked him for a letter he wrote to my housemaster, R J N Parr, known as Purple Parr, in which he described me as "a promising tortoise.... not nearly at his peak". Previous reports had emphasised rather less appealing aspects of my "doubtful temperament".

My nickname at school was Haggar and occasionally, when drunk, the housemaster would shake his head and say, "We're not doing at all well, Haggar." Purple Parr, a portly, well-waistcoated and bespectacled man with a very red face, taught mathematics. He was a discouraging man. Even when he said something which was intended as praise,it turned out disparaging. He couldn't help himself. He'd say things like: "You did rather well - but of course it was a particularly easy paper this year."

Even worse, though, was Bloody Bill (H K Marsden), a tall, bent, grim-visaged, churlish, prying mathematics teacher with a relish for power and a devotion to the theory and practice of corporal punishment. I didn't see much of him, thank God.

Another teacher I admired and who brought his subject to life, was Sydney Watson. He ran the Eton College music society. He, too, made things fun, and was encouraging. If something wasn't very good, he'd say: "That's not at all bad, but we can do better", and you felt, "Yes I can do better". Like Peter Spanoghe, he also leapt around a lot.

I had two places at university to study science on the recommendation of my father who thought that was where the future lay, but I turned away from doing something in which I had no natural interest. Instead, I continued my education at Maidenhead public library, while pursuing careers in law, the military, and, eventually, writing.

Michael Holroyd, 64, has written acclaimed biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw. His own family history, 'Basil Street Blues' is published by Little Brown. He is married to the novelist Margaret Drabble. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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