Unsettled and Unsettling

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One of the standard figures of literature, and one that appears in many writers’ lives, is that of the inspirational teacher. From Miss Moffatt in Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green to Mr Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, this man or woman is shown as eccentric, omniscient, selfless, stern, and yet full of a radiant kindness.

Years ago such teachers were not uncommon in actual life; today they are probably as rare as unicorns in a school system that seems to have been devised by a confederacy of dunces. In the couple of years I spent at a school in mid-Wales in the late 1950s I was lucky to be taught English by the splendidly named Miss Jehu. With her bush of white hair she seemed very old to me, though she was probably only 50 or so. We were taught, officially, nothing beyond the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, but Miss Jehu roamed wide and free. We were required to learn poems by heart and to recite them. The actual mechanics of English grammar were largely ignored – it was assumed that these had been absorbed years before.

We were also encouraged to write, in our own way, stories and poems, and to use the school library. I think that I wrote in the style of whatever author I was reading at the time, producing one week sub-Audenesque bitter ballads, the next sub-Hopkinsian hymns to nature. Miss Jehu took an interest in the very odd boy I was then. She gently pointed out glaring debts to Dylan Thomas (it was his turn that week) in one of my poems and asked, equally gently, if I was not frightened when she found me reading ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ by Walter de la Mare in an anthology of ghost stories. She said she found some of his things quite terrifying. Did I like his poetry? I responded with opinions I had picked up from some dour book on modern poetry – that his work was dated and a bit too pretty and prissy. Well, yes, she agreed, some of the poetry did read a bit oddly now, but much of it was very good and a litt

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About the contributor

William Palmer went to a number of schools and worked in a bewildering variety of jobs before becoming a full-time writer in 1988. He has written six novels, including The India House, available now in paperback.

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