My best teacher;Interview;Stefan Buczacki

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Beverley Johnson was unlike any teacher I had met. He was the sort of teacher who is probably common nowadays, but was very unusual in the early Sixties. He was my biology master for O-level and A-level, and treated his pupils as equals. He wanted people to call him, not only by his first name, but by his nickname, Noddy. The headmaster got to know of this and there were all sorts of ructions.

The Ecclesbourne School in Duffield, Derbyshire, was a very formal establishment. The teachers wore gowns and the headmaster, Donald Redfearn, was an ex-military man who wanted to run this new grammar school like a long-established public school.

I was a founder pupil, one of only 75. When I joined there were 68 11-plus boys and seven 13-plus boys, who were known as the seven deadly sins. It is now a comprehensive with more than 1,000 pupils.

I remember well the first morning, when the headmaster, a tall, imposing figure made one or two announcements then said: "The following will be the school tradition..." and he reeled off a list. The notion that you could invent traditions seemed extremely odd. The headmaster's heart was in the right place, but he was at the opposite end of the educational spectrum from Beverley Johnson, who came along like a breath of fresh air a few years after the school had been established.

The seeds of my interest in botany were already sown. I grew up in a family of keen amateur gardeners, and, probably because of living in the countryside, developed a passion for natural history. I originally intended to become a zoologist. It was the educational system that turned me into a botanist, not, I hasten to say, the teaching. Bev Johnson himself was a zoologist, but the curriculum in those days meant doing botany and zoology as separate subjects at A-level, and in zoology you just didn't see any living organisms. You saw pictures of animals and, if you were lucky, something long-dead and pickled in a bottle. But in botany you saw real plants and handled living material.

Bev Johnson was a passionate teacher. He passed on to me a passion for freshwater biology - all the things that live or grow in ponds and rivers. He was young and phenomenally enthusiastic. We used to go off on field courses, official ones that were part of the syllabus and unofficial ones in the school holidays. He was bald with a beaky nose and big ears, which is why he was called Noddy. Rather unusually for that time, we got to know him privately and to meet his wife and children. Sadly, he died prematurely, in his 40s.

Our first biology teacher, who I met up with again recently, was called Mrs Wright, a charming white-haired woman who astonished everybody by leaving to have a baby. We always assumed she was about 60. We were obviously wrong.

I got on well with all the staff - all the teachers were characters. We had a school reunion recently - the first one, 40 years after the school was founded. Everyone remembered Bev Johnson. They also remembered another school character in the biology department, a lab technician, an extremely tall, solemn, sober man who acquired the nickname of The Lurking Grudge.

Only two of us took zoology at A-level and we both became professional biologists despite Beverley Johnson's warning that we would never make a good living at it. We kept in touch, so he knew that I did. Some years ago his wife turned up in the audience of Gardeners' Question Time and said how pleased she was, and he had been, to see that I had turned his teaching to my advantage.

I read botany at Southampton University, where I had another influential teacher, John Manners, who taught me mycology (the study of fungi). He was president of the British Mycological Society and this year I have become the first of his students to follow in his footsteps.

And at Oxford, where I did a DPhil in forestry, Dick Pawsey supervised my forest pathology. He was a tremendous character, a man of boundless energy - and a very good gardener. He wasn't in the conventional mould of the Oxford don. He drove a Morris Traveller, which he insisted on calling a shooting brake, and he referred to attractive women as popsies.

He taught me a lot about fungi that cause plant diseases. He'd worked in Trinidad and while he was there the woodwork on his Morris Traveller became infected and he drove around Oxford with a huge tropical fungus growing out of the side of his vehicle.

Stefan Buczacki, the radio and television gardening programme panellist, is honorary professor of plant pathology at Liverpool John Moores University. His wife, Beverley, is a teacher and runs a pre-preparatory and nursery school in Stratford-upon-Avon. His latest book, 'Stefan Buczacki's Plant Dictionary', was published yesterday by Hamlyn on April 8. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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