Rowan Williams

21st March 2008 at 00:00
His life-long love of literature and theology was inspired by fantastic Latin and English teachers

As a small child I was sickly, suffering meningitis and bronchial illnesses, so I first went to a small private school in Cardiff. But when I was 11 we moved back to Swansea. There, in the Sixties, I was lucky enough to attend Dynevor School, the local boys' grammar, where two Latin teachers and two English teachers were the ones who influenced me most strongly.

I'm still in touch with Robert Howells, who started me in my love of Latin and was also one of the first in Wales to teach Russian at secondary level at a time when I was already into things Russian. He was encouraging about that too, although I never did it as a subject. Square and solid, with a broad, Buddha-like face, he had enormous commitment and was so self-possessed and calm in class that he never had discipline problems. He was at the same school for decades. We particularly appreciated his willingness to be around to help and encourage beyond the curriculum: he got me reading Robert Graves's I, Claudius, for instance, when I was 13 or 14.

George Hounsell, my other Latin teacher, was laid back, tall and thin with a beaky nose and a bush of black hair. He ran our tiny A-level class like a reading group. We sat around talking but we finished the entire two-year syllabus in one year and did the alternative syllabus in the second so that we'd have more choice on the A-level paper. We were unleashed on to the literature and allowed to find what interested us. I discovered Catullus at this time and a life-long enthusiasm for Virgil, especially the Aeneid. We were encouraged to learn bits of it by heart and I can still quote 20-line blocks. Like the other teachers I've singled out, George did not bully you into learning - it was up to you - but if you showed any signs of interest you'd have 100 per cent support.

John Bennett, who taught me O-level and A-level English, had been at school with Dylan Thomas and wrote poetry. You can imagine how we'd say: "Tell us about when you were a boy, Sir" - a very popular lesson stopper - and he did tell us about trips to the Mumbles in South Wales with Thomas. In fact I'm pretty sure he figures anonymously in one of Thomas's stories of his boyhood. There's a poem of his about Bach, published under a pseudonym in the school magazine, which I still think is good.

He was bony, with dark hair heavily greased and parted in the middle, slightly more tense and driven than the two Latin teachers, but there was the same willingness to talk, to stretch us.

I began writing poetry at this stage and he was encouraging about my efforts. It was clear that he loved what he was doing, loved talking to us about literature; he was not just earning a living.

I had my first theological thoughts studying English, not religious studies, initially through Thomas Hardy's poetry, then, in the sixth form, the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert. I'd given up RE quite early because in those days it was a matter of mapping the missionary journeys of St Paul and listing the kings of Israel, which appealed to my anorak side, but I didn't find it easy to relate it to what happened in church.

The most memorable experience for many of us at school was being in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which Graham Davies, another English teacher, produced. Graham arrived when I was in the sixth form. He set up a debating society and a sixth form discussion group with the girls' school on the hill, which was popular. He was much more informal than other teachers, probably barely 30, and hung around with the sixth form.

I played the stage manager in Our Town, a god-like figure pontificating, leaning against the proscenium arch issuing incomprehensible platitudes - shades of things to come, some people might say. It was great fun and a tremendous bonding experience.

Dr Rowan Williams was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003. He read theology at Cambridge, then did a DPhil at Oxford. Among his many publications, The Poems of Rowan Williams was published in 2002. He is a member of the Gorsedd of Bards. He was talking to Heather Neill.

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