Tim Lott

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Two teachers, who had nothing in common except their specialist subject, helped foster this novelist's passion for literature. During his turbulent school years they made a big difference

I arrived at Greenford Grammar School in Southall, west London, as a bit of a nerd. The phrase used in all my reports was: "Tim lives in a world of his own" and I think that pretty much summed me up. I was shy and dreamy and definitely not in with the tough kids. I was bullied at my primary school, but at Greenford I became invisible.

Then I woke up one morning, when I was about 13, and just said to myself:

"I'm not going to be an introvert anymore." I dumped my best friend because he was a swot and holding me back, and became louder, tougher and a vandal.

It made me more popular - although not with the teachers.

I was often in trouble, but it was not until the sixth form that I was threatened with expulsion. Ernie Lockhart, an English teacher, hit me hard across the head for no reason. I was furious and told him I'd get him sacked, while he scurried off to the head and said I had to go. But in a strange way he became one half of my best teacher.

Ernie was old school. He was humourless and didn't seem to like children very much, but he was committed to his subject. He was a man in his 50s and very much a product of his time: he always wore a tie and jacket, rarely smiled and tried to disguise his baldness with an unconvincing comb-over. I was cocky and annoying, but I thought I was smart and I liked books. My family didn't own books - my dad was a working class greengrocer in Notting Hill and essentially uneducated - so I admired Ernie because he was a stickler and believed in the seriousness of literature. I didn't like him and I still think of him as an old sod, but I grew to think he wasn't so bad and started to enjoy his lessons.

The other half of my best teacher was the polar opposite. He was another English teacher called Roy Truman, and he seemed typical of the generation of 1970s teachers who were very much child-centred. He had longer hair, was much younger, kinder and treated us with respect. He always had a twinkle in his eye and he loved reading.

Roy was all about enjoying literature, while Ernie believed in standards and intellectual rigour. I tried hard for Roy. I wanted him to like me and admire my work, while I wanted to earn Ernie's grudging respect and avoid his punishments. The two extremes worked well for me. They couldn't have been more different but, together with my local library, they helped foster my passion for literature.

That's not to say either of them recognised my potential. I had a passionate belief that I was different and capable and had something to say, but the school as a whole had low expectations of us. There was a rather optimistic sheet of paper at the school that was meant to name all the pupils who had gone on to Oxbridge, and it was empty. They thought most of us would end up working in the factory. When I told my careers teacher I wanted to be a journalist he actually laughed, while the idea of becoming a novelist was absolutely absurd. That is just how it was at Greenford. I hate to think what it was like at the secondary modern

Tim Lott is a novelist and journalist. His first book was the award-winning, semi-autobiographical The Scent of Dried Roses, while his latest, Fearless, is a children's story about a sinister school. He was talking to Hannah Frankel

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