Poetry drove out rugby and boxing

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather before me, I was educated from 11 to 18 at Bedford School. Traditionally, Bedford was for the sons of the Raj civil service and military (my father had been a colonel in the Indian army), and many of the boys, myself included, were destined to go into the forces. The place was suffused with a sense of Empire.

I was not a brilliant scholar and my school career until 16 was rugby, athletics and girls from the local high school. I was a pretty hearty boy in a pretty hearty school.

I'm not in favour of public schools, but I am immensely grateful for the sacrifices my parents made to send me to Bedford.

If I had been less fortunate, I'm sure I would have failed the selective state system at 11, left school at 14 - and that would've been that for the rest of my life. My passion for what I call "multi-chance" education - a system in which every child and adult can always find a route back into learning - is built on that experience.

By the time I entered the lower sixth I had got a naval scholarship and my attitude was fairly indifferent: "Here's a couple of years before I go into the Navy." But it was then that I came in contact with two teachers who changed my life: David Bullock, who passed on to me his passion for history; and John Eyre, who gave me an enduring passion for drama, music and, especially, poetry.

They both gave me an incalculable gift: the desire to go on learning throughout one's life. But, if pressed, I'd say it was John Eyre's influence which was the greater.

Somehow, he opened up a side of my personality I never knew existed, almost like you'd peel back a can of sardines. Suddenly, this roughie-toughie rugby player and boxer was attending the poetry society readings held in Eyre's house, just beyond the school gates.

Evenings I would otherwise have spent on the athletic track or sneaking into pubs, I spent in the poetry society being captivated by Auden, Eliot or Donne.

Eyre's great passion at Bedford was the school play. This was staged in the hall, which was a bit like a 19th-century version of the Great Hall at Westminster. He never chose anything easy: I remember doing Murder in the Cathedral, and Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6.

I became fascinated by the whole business of producing plays and we all put a lot of effort into them. As far as I recall, however, I was never entrusted with a speaking part. The dizziest pinnacle I reached was a monk in The Ascent.

Eyre was a tall, gaunt man, with fair, lanky hair, and he came across as sort of a rebel. He was very different from the main body of teachers and I can remember wondering why on earth he had come to teach at a place like Bedford.

I can't remember exactly how he taught; he just made all of the literature live. He got us all very involved in critical analysis - A C Bradley on Shakespeare and so on.

I still have the essays I wrote for him tucked away at home somewhere, and I remember - much to my surprise - wanting to do good work and being desperate to know what Eyre thought of it. The mark and comments on the end of an essay were something you awaited eagerly. Those comments were always sharp but constructive.

He once said something to me that I've followed since: "No one is so good that there's nothing they can't improve on, nor anyone so bad that there isn't something that is worth valuing in them." My liberal beliefs were planted by John Eyre, though he would be shocked to hear that, as his own beliefs were definitely socialist.

I remember being intensely fulfilled in those two years. I didn't entirely give up on the sport. I was still in the First XV and the athletics team. I had become fascinated by this romantic idea of the well-rounded person who did all kinds of things.

Eyre had lit such a fire in me that I was bitterly disappointed that, unlike all my new-found friends in his class, I was not going on to university (though I got a first in Chinese when I did my tertiary education in my late twenties).

I met Eyre again about a year ago, when Michael Brunson (political editor of ITN and a contemporary of mine at Bedford) organised a lunch at the Reform Club in his honour. Every one of his former pupils at the lunch - all now in pretty prominent positions in one field or another - recognised the huge impact he'd made.

The most amazing thing about that lunch was that he could remember the parts every one of us had taken in the plays. He looked at me very quizzically and said: "I remember you very well, Ashdown. You were a most unusual person. I never thought you'd like those literary things. I think you were a monk in The Ascent of F6." An astonishing memory, and a remarkable man.

Paddy Ashdown, 56, politician, served in the Royal Marines from 1959 to 1971. He was elected as MP for Yeovil in 1983 and has been leader of the Liberal Democrats since 1988

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