Chatting to a friend and fellow bloggist about writing styles, I stumbled across the fact that two of my erstwhile University lecturers went on to be major biographers. Norman Sherry who was Professor of English at Lancaster and a fussy little man I really didn’t like had modelled himself personally on Joseph Conrad – a fussy little author I wasn’t very fond of, either – but became Graham Greene’s official biographer taking thirty years to research and produce a three-volume memoir. And John Russell Brown, examiner for the Theatre Studies part of my degree, is the most prolific dissector and biographer of William Shakespeare as well as Editor of the Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre.
Whilst their influence and tutelage was undoubtedly significant, it didn’t have the direct intensity of teachers from primary and secondary school who actually fostered my interest in their subjects, and genuinely inspired my life. Two spring to mind, the first being my English teacher from prep school, my mentor from ages seven to ten.
Mrs Britton, it took me years to find out her first name was Winifred, whom I idolised even though she looked remarkably like Vera Lynn. I can remember as a precocious eight year-old complimenting her on a celadon-green belted two piece she wore to assembly one morning, and being fascinated by the contour effect of the horizontally ribbed fabric which corrugated her bosom as surely as if she’d been upholstered by Maples.
She signed my autograph book when I left school (at 10) with the words “victor qui laborat” – he who works, conquers. And she was bloody right although what she didn’t know was one of the reasons I’d come top in the 11+ exams was that I’d been practising using a teachers’ reference book to the tests (with answers) that I’d bought in W H Smiths, and the examining body was daft enough to repeat a lot of the questions from previous years.
Darrell Buttery, in his first teaching job, was my inspiration in so many ways as my first form master at public school. Naturally at 11 I fell hopelessly in love with him and used to try and force myself to dream about him at bedtime. Even now, some of the guys I fancy have some affinity with “DGB”.
He used to come into class with “good morning girls” which in 1964 was beyond provocative but I don’t think I knew even by rumour that he might actually be gay until twenty years later when my mother met him in town and speculated about why he never married.
But he directed me in my first school play – female lead Rosaura Balanzoni in Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell arte The Liar – and sowed a seed under my powdered wig and crinoline that I shall never ever regret.
Google's a wonderful tool. He's left teaching and is now Chair of York Civic Trust and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire.