My best teacher;Interview;Peter White

4th June 1999 at 01:00
I imagine it's quite unusual for your favourite teacher to teach your worst subject, but that was the case for me. His name was Walton van Clute and he taught physics at Worcester College for the Blind. The masters doubled as warders - sorry, disciplinarians - and their job was to control the school after prep finished at quarter to eight. They made sure you went to bed on time, washed your hands before a meal, that kind of thing. The first thing I noticed about Walton van Clute was that he didn't do any of those things. He would do things like come and talk to you, which was an extraordinary departure from normal procedure.

There were about 70 pupils at Worcester and at mealtimes we would sit on these great long tables with a member of staff on each one to keep order. Walton sat on the end of my table.

Early on in his first term the world nearly ended. It was the Cuba crisis of 1962 and we thought America and Russia were going to blow each other - and all the rest of us - to kingdom come. One morning, after Kennedy had given Kruschev an ultimatum to get out of American waters, we were all talking about this. Walton came down and said "Who do you think is the hero of all this?'' We thought Kennedy was this lovely, cuddly democrat who had a way with words, so we said "It's that wonderful Mr Kennedy.'' And he said: "Well, I think Kruschev is the hero.'' It became clear that he was somebody with a completely different take on the world. He was the kind of communist who had gone on believing, even though it was quite unfashionable. Whenever you hear about somebody like that you think, in view of what we know about the Russian regime, that they must have been slightly demented. But believe me, in human terms, he was the sanest man I have ever met.

He taught me about civilised values and the way people should treat each other, which I think is much more important than physics and something no one else was teaching at that school. I was getting taught the old kind of Christian values - which I didn't and don't accept - but he was the first man who came along and was actually kind to people.

I'm not sure how he ended up at our school. I think he got out of America at the time of McCarthyism, which was probably a good move. He had been a newspaperman and before that he fought in the Spanish Civil War. He was in his 60s when he came to Worcester so there was quite an age gap. It was a bit like the way sometimes you get on better with your grandparents than your parents. But he didn't think that just because you were older you knew more. You always got the impression he had a lot to learn from everyone. He was a knowledgeable man but a modest man as well.

There was also a cultural gap, which was quite exciting. We were intrigued by America. All the rock'n'roll was coming from America, and as you couldn't get pop music worth its salt on British radio we used to try to tune in to the American forces network. We were still recovering from the drabness of the Fifties, but he hated the America we were hankering after and he would gently try to say "Look boys, it's not as brilliant as you think.'' He was completely disillusioned with America and he would ask us with an air of puzzlement why we wanted to go there .

He lived close to the school and it was always an open house. He had a lovely wife called Stella. It was like being welcomed into a family, which is one of the things you miss at boarding school. Just going into a house and a woman being there and they are cooking sausages - it was the nearest to getting back home we were likely to get.

In the sixth form I got the job of editing the school magazine and that was when I got to know him really well because he had been a journalist and I used to consult him. I kept in touch with him after I left school. He was really pleased that I had gone into broadcasting. I took an early girlfriend there to see him because you knew he wouldn't ask you any embarrassing questions like "Are you sleeping together?" Then, about 10 years afterwards, he moved close to where I lived. My dad, who was a carpenter and builder, did some work for him and I saw him for a little while on a quite regular basis.

He died in the mid-Eighties - when he was in his 80s. He would have been hugely embarrassed at being nominated as my best teacher. He wasn't a man who it was very easy to say nice things to. There were some people at our school who thought he let the side down and didn't keep proper discipline, but these were 17-year-olds going on 70. Those of us who felt we knew him really loved him. He was a wonderful man.

Peter White is the BBC's disability affairs correspondent and aregular presenter of 'You and Yours' on Radio 4. His autobiography, See It My Way, is published by Little Brown. He was talking to Harvey McGavin

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