Naomi Alderman

21st December 2012 at 00:00
The novelist and games writer was enchanted by a woman with a wide-ranging mind who was fond of giving advice

Mrs Louise Pavey was my Latin teacher at South Hampstead. I would never have thought that Latin would be a subject I would be particularly interested in, but due to her excellent teaching I became really excited by it. I ended up doing A-level Latin and I still find that period utterly riveting.

I was 12 when she first started teaching me. She was one of those rare teachers who makes pupils be quiet in class - not because they frighten them or deal with them aggressively, but just because we all really liked her.

She was a small, bustling woman, quite busy, with a really keen eye. You had the feeling she was observing us and was interested in us. She didn't mind if we went off on tangents in class. We talked about everything. I remember her telling us about her visit to Pompeii - you felt she knew so much and it would be a crime if you were not listening.

Teaching Latin to a group of 12-year-old girls, she was so engaged by the subject and she was just so nice and kind to us. She was able to read a classroom and could tell when we had been cooped up all day and needed 20 minutes to blow off steam. She would give us space to chat and then bring us back.

There was a group of girls who were able to terrify teachers if they had it in mind to do so - they were quite willing, if they saw a weakness, to throw someone against the wall. They used to torment the teachers but they never did it to Mrs Pavey.

I remember a particular piece of work on the Roman villa that she'd developed and put together herself because she couldn't find a textbook that was good enough. I've still got it - it's a really useful resource. And I remember discussing it with someone else after the class and saying you could see how much work had gone into it. We suddenly realised that teachers put a lot of work into teaching us.

She had a very wide-ranging mind and didn't mind giving us advice. When we were talking about classics, you maybe talked more about sexuality. If you read Petronius, he talks about men with enormous penises - and she accepted that would make us laugh.

I went to visit her house once in Bath. She and her husband called each other Mr P and Mrs P - it was like the last century.

As a Jewish girl I remember the shock of reading Ovid, a lifelong companion. Who could think that a writer who's been dead for 2,000 years could still make you laugh out loud? I had thought in a very naive way that the world was becoming progressively nicer to Jews, but there is a bit in Ovid where he talks about where to go to meet girls - and then he says you should go to the synagogue because the Syrian Jewish girls there are very pretty. That changed my world, because he thought it was perfectly normal to go and look up Jewish girls. This was before anti-Semitism existed - it only came in with Christianity.

The Rome that's in my mind is populated by Mrs Pavey and it's very much more real and enticing than ugly, busy, modern Rome with its traffic jams.

Certain weather can bring back the past really vividly and there's a particularly hot afternoon in London that makes me long for A-level Latin classes where we were able to talk about what we wanted to do.

Naomi Alderman is a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University and the author of The Liars' Gospel, 2012, published by Viking. She was talking to Elizabeth Buie


Born: London, 1974

Education: Sinai Primary, Kenton and South Hampstead High School for Girls, both London; Lincoln College, Oxford; master's in creative writing, University of East Anglia

Career: Professor of creative writing, Bath Spa University. Winner of the Orange Award for New Writers for first novel, Disobedience, 2006; Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2007.

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