Tim Waterstone

15th June 2007 at 01:00
'Blinding good' one-to-one English lessons with a fascinating and well-read woman inspired the man behind Waterstone's book stores

I was barely educated and barely fed at prep school. Then I went to Tonbridge, which was a bog standard minor public school in those days, but it was where I encountered inspirational teaching of an extraordinary standard I'd never experienced before. Mrs Austin was the wife of the school chaplain and wasn't actually a teacher, but gave extra English lessons on a one-to-one basis in the evenings.

She opened up my imagination in a sensational way. She was amazingly well read and talking to her was leagues above what I was getting from the nice English master, who was teaching 23 of us in a class. I'd always had a natural affinity for writing and when I was 14 won the school short story competition - despite Freddie Forsyth being there at the same time. I wrote about one of the masters who was retiring and the prize was a book, which I still have. I'd just got into Thomas Hardy and chose Far From the Madding Crowd.

Twice a week for two years I spent an hour with Mrs Austin in her little drawing room piled with books and usually with a pot filled with wild flowers. She'd give me a cup of tea and once on my birthday she made me a cake. She was a lovely warm woman with a kind face.

There was something of Doris Lessing about her in appearance and in her conversation. She was very left wing, which appealed to me enormously because my parents were right-wing colonials. She dressed exactly like Iris Murdoch, in those loose, floppy sort of clothes. I've always liked that style of dress ever since. She was cultured, eclectic, imaginative, kindly, wise and intelligent. I really loved her.

Mrs Austin gave me Odour of Chrysanthemums, a short story by DH Lawrence, to read and asked me what it meant. That was an epiphany for me. I'd always read a lot and enjoyed the narrative, but never realised that stories meant something. Then she moved on to Browning and got me to analyse every line.

She encouraged me to become absorbed in the minor poets and to understand the significance of their work. She introduced me to authors I might not otherwise have read, such as John Steinbeck. It was blinding good teaching to a sympathetically inclined 15-year-old boy.

She taught me about music too, and sometimes played Nielsen symphonies very quietly in the background. I'd volunteered for these extra lessons because even then I had Oxbridge at the back of my mind and I wanted to read English. I've always had goals - though sometimes they move - and tenacity.

As a schoolboy I was small, but fierce. I was terrified of boxing but taught myself and got into the school team. I became head of my house and a school prefect. There was absolutely no pressure on me from home, which was wonderful. My older brother and sister were academic and my mother took one look at me and decided I was dim. She gave me lots of praise if I said anything in the least bit intelligent. I wish teachers realised how much power they have to boost children's confidence.

I thought I might become a teacher myself at one stage. I tried it for one term and absolutely loved it. Just before I went to Cambridge, I had a call from a former teacher who'd become a headmaster. His English master had had a stroke two days before the beginning of term and they needed somebody quickly. But although I'd enjoyed teaching so much, I had other things I wanted to do Tim Waterstone is the founder of Waterstone's bookshops and the Daisy and Tom children's stores. In his recent book, Swimming Against the Stream, he shares his entrepreneurial tips on how to succeed in business. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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