Thom Gunn seemed to me a very exotic creature

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Thom Gunn seemed to me a very exotic creature. He came to school on a motorbike in his black leather gear and was fabulously good-looking

There have been three special people in my life and each of them represented a new beginning in my education. Ruth Pchelkin taught me in ninth grade at school, Thom Gunn was one of my lecturers at university, and David Toguri was the dance master when I was in Hair.

Ruth taught English at Oakland high, California, and was the first teacher who appreciated that I was different. Instead of wanting me to conform, she encouraged me to be different. I grew up in Philadelphia, and coming from the East Coast made me stand out. I had a different accent, came from an all-girls' school, was less relaxed than my peers and was one of only 25 Negroes among 3,000 students. I became president of my class and was very involved, but at the same time I was very separate. I didn't move with the crowd.

My father was a psychiatrist who'd been to Harvard and my mother was one of the first black librarians in Philadelphia. I was a diligent student and was expected to be. At that time, if you came from a Negro family the way to succeed was to sing, tap dance or box, or become a doctor or a lawyer.

High achieving at school was what I was supposed to do. My brother and sister and I were all expected to become doctors.

Ruth Pchelkin was divine, and I use that word in its religious sense. She was quiet and stern, but generous with her time and she was constantly trying to expand the world for me. I would write essays for her, and instead of grading them by grammar and spelling she always looked for content and creativity. It was she who got me writing. A few years ago I tried to find her because I wanted to tell her I'd become a professional writer and ask her if she would like to read some of my books, but I was unsuccessful.

Thom Gunn, the poet, lectured at the University of California Berkeley when I was there and seemed to me a very exotic creature. He came to school on a motorbike in his black leather gear and was fabulously good-looking. He was the first Englishman I met. He was also gay, though I didn't know it at the time. He taught a course on TS Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and I was fascinated and hung on his every word. I was attracted by Thom's difference from all the other tutors just as I was attracted to Ruth because of the different way she taught me.

I never finished my degree because I got caught up with the Free Speech movement and student sit-ins and took a term off to come to England. I figured I'd wash dishes, wait tables or babysit to work my way around the country, but I met another American student who told me about a job going for a singer in a band at pound;5 a week. I went along for an audition and ended up joining Alexis Korner's trio. I was spotted by Long John Baldry and joined his group (which included Reg Dwight, later known as Elton John). Then I heard about auditions for Hair and joined the show.

David Toguri was the dance master. He was Japanese-Canadian and came from a family of doctors. Most of us in the show weren't actors; we'd been recruited from the music business, and it was his job to train us. David was the person who taught me what some people describe as confidence, but I think of as self-awareness. His rehearsals weren't just about movement and dancing; he wanted to understand your motivation as a performer, to know why you moved in a particular way. It was an awakening. I'd been singing in bands for nearly two years, but when I left Hair after six months to go solo I'd learned from David how to project myself from a stage. I am very competitive and on stage with 25 people I was still that child who thought she had to get A grades and who wanted to get A grades.

Singer, actress and writer Marsha Hunt was talking to Pamela Coleman.


1946 Born in Philadelphia

1952-60 John Wister school, John Story Jenks school, Philadelphia high school

1960-64 Oakland high school

1964 Enrols at University of California

1966 Moves to England

1968 Appears in London production of rock musical Hair

1969 Hit single, Walk on Gilded Splinters

1970 Daughter Karis Jagger born

1982 Joins National Theatre

1986 Autobiography, Real Life: the Story of a Survivor, published

1989 Joins Royal Shakespeare Company

1990 First novel, Joy, published, followed by Free (1992)

2005 Subject of ITV documentary, Beating Breast Cancer. Publication of Undefeated, memoir about having breast cancer

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