Mr Powell by Stanley Johnson

27th July 2018 at 00:00
A teacher who mixed dignity with humour inspired a love of Classics in the author, former Conservative MEP and I’m a Celebrity contestant

When I joined Sherborne School at the age of 13 in January 1954, we had lots and lots of teachers of Greek and Latin – my favourite subjects. Greek and Latin are the foundations of so much of our language, thought, culture and civilisation, and that was absolutely the basis of my love of the Classics.

A fellow called “Graggers”, otherwise known as Colonel GG Green, was the first Classics teacher that I had, and he was good. Like so many of his generation, he had been off to war and had quite a military bearing. He was a character, you could say. All of my teachers at Sherborne School were a very high-quality bunch and that was borne out by the fact that in the year I left, it clocked up over 21 scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge. You don’t get that unless you have a very strong teaching base.

Mr Powell was the school’s headmaster and he taught me Classics for two years. He stood out because of his commanding presence and sonorous voice. He also stood out because he clearly loved the Classics; he had such an evident enthusiasm for it, which was very difficult not to feel personally when you were being taught by him.

His love of Classics was his best quality, along with his dignity and his sense of humour. I remember that if he was in the middle of teaching a class in Greek or Latin and a plane passed overhead, making a noise in the classroom, he might say something like: “Let’s pause while progress passes.”

Mr Powell dressed conservatively in a university gown and cap. His teaching style was traditional, too. He would always write on a blackboard at the front of the room, while sitting perched high on a desk.

I was head boy of the school and my ambition was to continue my education and go to Oxford. It is a new idea that you go to school and university for a particular career. I got a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford and I am very proud of that. I had several years in the sixth form at Sherborne School, and I took my A levels at age 15. When I got the A levels, I was offered a place at Lincoln College, Oxford. My maternal grandfather went to Lincoln and just before my interview at the college, my mother urged me to tell the panel of this fact as she was sure it would help. I did, and a day or two later the rector of Lincoln wrote me a letter admitting me to the college.

However, my family had been farming on Exmoor since 1951 and when I discovered that Exeter College was offering the Stapeldon Scholarship for boys with a strong West Country connection – preferably to the sons of sheep farmers – who wished to read the Classics, I sat the exam and was duly successful.

I kept in touch with Mr Powell after I left Sherborne in December 1958 and went to visit him when I was writing his obituary for The Times. I didn’t tell him I was writing his obituary, but I think he guessed it. He was born in 1909 and died in 1998 at the age of 88.

The paperback version of Stanley Johnson’s new novel Kompromat was published in March by Oneworld Publications. Johnson was speaking to Adeline Iziren

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