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Wendy Holden

Compensatory bars of chocolate and Keatsian discussions about relationships underpinned this writer's admiration for her English teacher

Compensatory bars of chocolate and Keatsian discussions about relationships underpinned this writer's admiration for her English teacher

Compensatory bars of chocolate and Keatsian discussions about relationships underpinned this writer's admiration for her English teacher

Mrs Symons joined Whitcliffe Mount School in West Yorkshire as deputy head and head of English when I was in the lower sixth, just starting A-levels. I was determined to go to university and intended to read history, which up to then had been my favourite subject. I was vaguely hoping to work for the National Trust, and if it hadn't been for Vanda I would probably have ended up dusting off manuscripts in a basement.

Everything changed when she came and I realised that English was the subject I wanted to do, entirely because of the way she taught it. She did what no teacher had ever done before; she managed to relate it to every aspect of life.

Vanda made me realise English literature isn't just the flower arranging of academia, it's life. Everything you could experience, every place you could go, everything you could think, is somewhere in a book.

Because it was an A-level course, we were studying Shakespeare and the romantic poets. Keats was her burning passion and she was able to make his work absolutely comprehensible to a motley collection of northern sixth formers, some of whom weren't terribly interested. She did it by relating Keats to our lives. I vividly remember her reading in her broad Yorkshire accent: "Love in a hut, with water and a crust, Is - Love forgive us! - cinders, ashes, dust."

She explained you might think you're in love with someone when you are 16, but if you get pregnant and have no money it could turn out to be "cinders, ashes, dust". She encouraged us to aspire to things we possibly hadn't thought of doing. When I decided to try for Cambridge, which was a long shot, it was Vanda who encouraged me to have a go.

She talked to us as if we were grown-ups. She was only 36, but she was always moaning about her age. She would say how much she loved chocolate and how she worried about becoming fat. She communicated effortlessly with us like a friend. And she combined this with an absolute passion for her subject.

Vanda even looked different from any teacher I'd ever had. She was glamorous, always well dressed. I see her in a crisp white blouse, smart black skirt and high heels with her brown hair up in a chignon. And she always smelt lovely too. Because she was deputy head, she had her own office and it was full of flowers and all over the walls she had enormous photocopies of lines from Shakespeare or her favourite poems. Wherever you sat your eyes would go to something stimulating and interesting. She lived and breathed her subject.

I worshipped her, but she was popular with everybody. When we were sitting exams she would put little bars of chocolate on every desk. She took us to the theatre, to an amateur production of The Merchant of Venice, and to Stratford to see Macbeth, where we also went to the Black Swan pub where all the actors drank. She also took us to the cinema and arranged a special showing of the Alan Bates film of Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.

Her husband, Paddy, was an English teacher at a different school. They were an exotic couple - the Burton and Taylor of English teaching. We've kept in touch. Vanda read some Yeats at my daughter's christening service.

I still feel bad about switching allegiance from history to English because my history teacher, Mr Perrin, was such a lovely man. He had a jolly red face and floppy white hair and brought humour to his subject. Somehow he managed to make Corn Laws, free trade and tariff reform fun.

As long as I can remember, I'd wanted to write a novel, but it wasn't until I went to London and had a job ghost writing Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's column in The Sunday Times that I found a subject. Vanda thought that was great.

Wendy Holden, 42, worked as a journalist for The Sunday Telegraph, Tatler, The Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday before turning to writing full-time in 2000. Since then she has written several books including Fame Fatale and, most recently, The School for Husbands. She was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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