We only knew violence and ignorance and bigotry. The masters were bullies and you knew that at some time every day you would take a beating

Portrait by Dillon Bryden

At the age of four and a half I was taken from my primary school in Finsbury Park and sent as an evacuee to Somerset. My sister went to live with wealthy people in the village and I went to live in a council house with a family of farm labourers. I stayed there for just over a year but my sister was adopted by her family and never came back.

I came back to London for a year and then I was evacuated again to a place near Bolton in Lancashire. Somerset was a lovely place, almost as if everything had been made to be looked at rather than lived in. The north of England was the opposite. The people I was staying with were quite spiteful. They shaved my head and gave me a pair of clogs to wear. In 17 weeks I never once had a bath. It was a chicken farm and the night before I came back they emptied a dustbin that had been full of meal and made me wash in that.

I was nine, I couldn't read or write, but with the help of a teacher's son I managed to send a letter back to my mother and father who sent money for my journey home. It took 16 hours; the train growled its way through the night, stopping and starting, full of soldiers.

When I came back to Finsbury Park the war was drawing to a close. My mother used to work late on the railways loading lorries and my father wasn't well. We lived in a two-room basement flat, which was incredibly damp and my father was slowly dying of asthma.

I failed the 11-plus and went to Tollington Park secondary modern. I was dyslexic and in those days there was no comprehension of dyslexia. I was always being beaten or fighting other boys in the playground. The violence used to carry on into the rest of the day and there would be street brawls at night. We only knew violence and ignorance and bigotry. The masters were bullies and you knew that at some time every day you would take a beating.

There was a man there called Mr Cooper, an art teacher. Mr Cooper took assembly in the morning and played piano. He was quite an extrovert; he would dress in a blue shirt and yellow tie. There was something different about him. He didn't wield the cane like the others did, but he was a huge man.

I remember once we were all singing in assembly and I was trying to sing in a deep baritone to mess it all up; it was the only way you could get your own back. He said, "I'm going to find that boy"; he walked up and down the lines, frothing at the mouth. That was one of his characteristics. Once he took an interest in me, I could see another side of him that was caring.

I used to do a lot of painting and drawing, and my father encouraged me. It was because of the intervention of Mr Cooper that I took a scholarship to art school at 14. But within a year of starting my father died, and I had to leave and go to work on the railways.

Going to art school was like an end to the suffering; it lifted me from darkness into the light. It was a totally different experience; there were no beatings or canings, there were girls in the class and people who were nice.

I was hoping I could go into the art world, and I think if I had I would have been successful. But then I wouldn't have had the experiences I have had and travelled the world.

Growing up like that hardened me and taught me about poverty. I never saw murder in Finsbury Park, but it prepared me for terrible things. I have seen people in Beirut herded into doorways and shot; people executed in jungle clearings and marketplaces. I have been around a lot of death in my life.

If it wasn't for Mr Cooper I wouldn't have gone to art school and my horizons wouldn't have broadened. If I had been the kind of person I am today I would have tracked him down and made some overture of gratitude.

Photographer Don McCullin was talking to Harvey McGavin

The story so far

1935 Born King's Cross, London

1946-53 Attends Tollington Park secondary school, Islington, then art college in Hammersmith

1953 National service with the RAF

1959 Sells first picture to the Observer

1961 Wins British Press Award for photographs of Berlin Wall being built

1964 Wins World Press Photo award for pictures of war in Cyprus

1966 Joins Sunday Times, covers wars in Biafra, Vietnam, Beirut and Lebanon

1980 Major retrospective at VA, London

1984 Leaves Sunday Times

1993 Awarded CBE

2004-5 Life Interrupted, exhibition on the impact of Aids in Africa, runs until January 9 at County Hall gallery, London

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