My Best Teacher;Interview;Penny Vincenzi

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
I dangled in disgrace face down over Miss Crumpler's knee many a time. I was always getting into trouble at school for talking, and the punishment for being naughty was very simple - you were hung over Miss Crumpler's lap for the whole lesson and she carried on teaching as if you didn't exist.

She was a very large lady with twinkly eyes who wore stout shoes and long skirts and her grey hair in a bun. She ruled us with a rod of iron. She was my first teacher when I arrived at a little dame school called The Haven in Parkstone, near Bournemouth, at the age of five.

At the end of term, and I think at half term, every child went individually to see the headmistress, Miss Lawrence, to be tested in reading, sums and spelling. She had a stopwatch with which she timed how many difficult words you could read in a minute.

Miss Lawrence was dark and thin and seemed very tall, but when you're five, everyone seems very tall. She was frightening, but she was a genius. She ran the school on totally unconventional lines.

The principle was that children proceeded at their own pace. You had structured lessons, but if you were good at English, for instance, as I was, you went into whichever class was right for you. So when I was six I did English with the nine-year-olds. If you were bad at sums you stayed where you were, or even went down. Each class had a shifting population.

The classes were called blue, yellow, white or green; not one, two, three, four. Although everyone knew white was the top class, it wasn't labelled as such.

The uniform was lovely. We wore the most beautiful pale blue tunic, the old-fashioned sort with box pleats, and a most heavenly colour green blouse, and the tie was blue and green stripes.

I stayed at the school until I was nine and then we moved to Devon where I went to a convent. I hated all the nuns; they were horrible. For the first and only time in my life I was hit, only on the hand, but it was with a ruler and it hurt a lot. I think I was well taught though because from there I passed my 11-plus.

I was only nine when I produced my first magazine, called Stories, which I copied with carbon paper and sold for tuppence - though very few people actually agreed to pay. The stories were all serials so people would want the next issue. I obviously already knew about page-turners as a nine-year-old.

Next I went to Totnes High School for three years until we moved again, to London, and I went to Notting Hill and Ealing High School where I met my other favourite teacher, the English mistress, Margaret Crane. She was just brilliant.

I absolutely adored her and had a terrific crush on her. She was inspiring and great fun and she made reading and English literature fun. Miss Crane let me develop my own writing style, she wasn't pedantic and grammary and rule bound, though she'd say, "This is much too long," as people have been saying to me ever since. She would have been a terrific copy editor. She had a wonderful sense of humour as well and she used to giggle, which was very rare in a teacher.

We became friends and met occasionally after I left school, but lost touch. She went on to become headmistress of Shrewsbury High and must have retired by now.

I was an only child, and my education was terribly important to my parents, especially my father, who was a bank manager and a talented writer. He was offered a job as a copy writer with a big London advertising agency, but this was in the mid-1930s and he turned it down. I think it was a great sadness and frustration for the rest of his life.

He always used to tell me, "You can do anything if you want to," and this attitude was reinforced by that first little school. The whole principle there was zoom ahead, just get on and do brilliantly.

I didn't go to university. I was going to Exeter to read English, then I suddenly decided I wanted to get started in journalism. I went to one of those posh secretarial places in London which had a journalism course. It was very basic, but it taught you subbing and to do vox pop interviews and sent us to a couple of fashion shows. It was a good, practical little course. Then I went to Vogue and Tatler and then the Mirror.

* Penny Vincenzi began her journalistic career as a secretary on 'Vogue' and 'Tatler' before moving to the 'Daily Mirror' where she was personal assistant to Marjorie Proops and later a fashion and beauty writer. She has written for a variety of glossy magazines and national newspapers and has been a best-selling novelist for 10 years. Her latest book, 'Almost a Crime', is published by Orion .She was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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