I recently learned of the death of my English teacher at school, Richard Jones, or “Twitch,” as he was known to us boys, because of the involuntary smile that would crease his face at regular, but unpredictable times. In many ways, it is because of “Mister Jones” (as I knew him as a schoolboy) that I became the writer I am today. I was at a boarding school in Hertfordshire, in England, named Aldenham, which would become notorious as the location for one of the most iconic films of the rebellious Sixties, Lindsey Anderson’s “If,” which imagined a revolution in the school, complete with the machine-gunning of the parents and teachers at Visitation Day.
Like Malcolm McDowell, the moody star of “If”, I was a rebel, who bucked against authority and was basically a slacker, who worked only as hard as I needed to pass exams, but no more. I was more interested in sports, ragging with the other boys and pop music. This was the 60′, the era of The Stones and the Beatles, The Who and Led Zeppelin. These long-haired rock stars were our gods.
At the end of my first Sixth form year I had one of those sudden, intellectual spurts that can change one’s life. From being a slacker, I came near the top of two of the A Level subjects I was taking – History and French – and top, by quite a margin, in English. Mister Jones clearly spotted a gift in me that I myself was only dimly aware of. So he suggested I try the Oxbridge Entrance Exam a year early – there is allowance for this, with grades weighted accordingly – realising instinctively, I think, that this rebellious young boy would not be persuaded to stay on the extra term at school to sit them after my A-Levels. He offered to tutor me in his spare time to prepare for the exam.
So began one of the most intense intellectual bursts of my life. He and I would meet after school, and games, in the sixth form history room and go through the set texts for the exam as the winter darkness pressed against the windows: Blake, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, DH Lawrence, WB Yeats. At night, excused normal study hours, I walked up and down the dormitory in Kennedy’s House, memorising quotes and reading books of criticism, some of which I still have today. I estimate that in those three months, I read more than 100 books.
Arrived the day of the exam, I not only passed but was offered a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. I know Richard was very proud of my, and our, achievement. But, sadly, rebel that I was, after hitchhiking round Europe in my ‘gap year,’ I ended up turning down the Cambridge place and went to Bristol University instead. After tasting freedom, I didn’t want to be constrained by college life.
I saw Richard only once after that, and thanked him again for all his kindness and hard work on my behalf, and apologised to him for not taking up the place. He pulled that familiar smile and said I was not to worry about it. Today, I am a journalist with National Geographic and other publications worldwide, as well as the author of two books, most recently The Very White Of Love, which was published by Harper Collins in 2018. And I have no doubt that, without those three months I spent working with Richard Jones, I would not be the writer I am today. He will be fondly remembered.
Do you have a teacher who changed your life? I’d love to hear from you …