How We Met: Eric Anderson and Susan Hill

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The Independent Culture
Dr Eric Anderson, 62, was born and brought up in Edinburgh. He began his teaching career at Fettes and later became headmaster of Eton. Now Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, he was recently appointed Chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. He lives in Oxford with his wife, Poppy; they have a son and a daughter. Whitbread Prize-winning novelist Susan Hill, 56, was born in Scarborough. Her many books include Air and Angels, Mrs de Winter and, most recently, The Service of Clouds. The stage adaptation of her novel The Woman in Black has been running since 1989. She and her husband, the Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells, live in Gloucestershire with their two daughters

ERIC ANDERSON: As headmaster at Eton, I had a remarkable head of English, Michael Meredith, who was also the school librarian. The library had a lot of treasures given by previous generations - Shelley's pocket diary, a letter from Dickens - and Michael felt these shouldn't be neglected. As a result, we wheedled out of the governors each year a smallish sum of money to add new acquisitions.

Michael heard at a dinner party that Susan Hill was going to sell the manuscripts of her novels, probably to America, in order to raise money to put a conservatory on to her house. Susan had said she'd much rather they went to a small collection in Britain where people could see and handle them.

In the end a relatively small amount of money changed hands and they came to us - five or six manuscripts, including her working notes. Michael had them boxed up very nicely and said "Wouldn't it be a good idea if we asked Susan Hill to come and see what we've done with her books?" So we wrote and invited Susan to tea, and one Saturday afternoon she turned up with Stanley and her two daughters.

I'm a bit of a romantic. Literature is my chief love and I've always been in awe of creative writers, so I was probably slightly nervous about meeting Susan. But that nervousness lasted no more than five seconds. I still remember Susan coming into our flat - a small, comfortable person with an energetic stride and a delightful smile. Stanley was rather like Mr Thatcher, a pace and a half behind. We quickly realised that we were all going to get on. We toured the school, walked through the grounds and talked and talked and talked. We had a wonderful afternoon.

I'd read King of the Castle and asked Susan where she had got her knowledge of children from. I had found the book psychologically very convincing. In Strange Meeting, which deals with the First World War, Susan shows an extraordinary instinct for how young males feel. Susan said she'd been an only child, her father had died when she was young, and she didn't actually know any boys very well. So I said, "Why don't you come and meet some?"

As a result, while I was still at Eton, Susan came two or three times a year to teach. All ages. Susan doesn't suffer fools gladly - she doesn't put on the airs and graces of literary people. She would sit on the desk, swinging her legs, talking to the boys like an older sister. She was particularly good at striking up a rapport with the younger ones.

On one occasion, Susan was writing a book set in Victorian Eton. She wanted to come for a day or two to find out whether we had any ghosts. Rather to her disappointment, she walked the corridors in the gloom and couldn't find any evidence. The book is called Mist in the Mirror and there's a headmaster who is tall, stoops a little and speaks with a Scottish accent. I think it's me.

One year I asked Susan to judge the headmaster's short story competition at Eton. The English department made it very clear over tea that they thought one of two boys should win the prize. Susan gave it to someone quite different: Paul Watkins, who has since been greeted in the United States as the new Hemingway. What nobody knew at the time was that at 17 he had very nearly completed his first novel. It was published the year after he left school. Susan had been spot-on in her judgement.

Our friendship is built on talking. Susan speaks her mind and doesn't mind if others do too. She has a good sense of humour and is very funny about the things she's been doing.

Susan has done a lot of good to a lot of people, very quietly. She discovered a hospice in the north of England. She was impressed by the lady who ran it and since then has raised money for it every year. It's one of those things which marks her out from other novelists. She doesn't shun contact with the real world.

Susan is a very determined person. She likes sheep so she keeps sheep. She likes cherry blossom, so she has planted a whole orchard. She doesn't take no for an answer. If there's a problem she likes to get in there and solve it. For instance, she's running a little shop in Chipping Campden where local children have always bought cheap sweets and toys. It was going to the wall, so she bought it and serves behind the counter at weekends. When we went to buy presents for our grandchildren, she was selling yo-yos like hot cakes.

I was surprised when Susan told me she was starting up her publishing company, Long Barn Books, because I think of her as a writer. But she is a very good businesswoman. I've been signed up to write for her new magazine, Books and Company. It's an article to persuade people that Walter Scott is not unreadable.

Susan is one of the best novelists of her generation but she would never say so. She's wonderfully self-deprecating. She's genuine, sensible and down to earth. I have this test: if somebody rings me up out of the blue, does my heart rise or sink? There are few for whom my heart rises higher than for Susan.

SUSAN HILL: We met at Eton. It was May 1986. When Eric was headmaster, he and the English master wanted to buy all my manuscripts for the library. So we began to correspond. I felt very warmly towards Eric and his wife, Poppy. When Clemency, my youngest daughter, was born, Poppy - never having met me - sent me this wonderful Peter Rabbit roll-up travelling changing mat which transformed our lives. We used it every single day.

Then Eric invited me to lunch because the manuscripts were now in Eton College library. They'd had wonderful red leather boxes made for them. Because I write by hand and use whatever notebooks are available - some spiral-bound, some tiny little things - they are all of different shapes. Each novel had its own box, and within each was a compartment for each notebook.

I went to Eton with my husband and our elder daughter, who was nine, and Clemency, who was 10 months old and in a pushchair. It was quite an intimidating occasion really. I had looked Eric up in Who's Who. His CV is imposing. I know we were all feeling nervous.

I rang the doorbell. The door opened and Eric was standing there with Poppy by his side. What I remember most was his height. Here was a very tall man, an imposing figure wearing this extraordinary outfit - it was his Eton garb, a black morning suit. He had this slight, just detectable Scottish accent. Clemency gave him this great beaming smile and Eric said, "Oh hello Clemency. How nice of you to come to Eton." The ice was broken straight away.

We had lunch in the headmaster's house, in the formal wood-panelled dining room, but I realised that here were people who were not grand at all. Our friendship took off from there.

I started to go down to Eton quite a lot because they teach my novels in the English department. I did various classes about my books. As headmaster, Eric treated all the boys in the same way, with fairness and friendliness. He had no problems starting up a conversation with a boy the way he would with an adult. I wouldn't have liked to cross him, mind you. If a boy had really stepped out of line, I think Eric would have been a very intimidating figure.

Some men are not very good at conversations except about their own subjects. But with Eric you always come away feeling you've learnt something. In a crisis, he's one of the people I would think to call. I just know he'd do the right thing, say the right thing.

He's also the person I know who has got the greatest sense of public duty. I have none really. Eric will drag himself off on a wet, cold filthy night in order to talk to five people in a church hall 50 miles away. He believes he should do things if asked - for the good of the community or whatever. There's a splendid non-conformist probity about him.

Eric was at Fettes College, where he taught Tony Blair, and was teaching at Gordonstoun when Prince Charles was there. He has continued his friendship with the Prince. But he doesn't drop that into conversation. He doesn't need to.

Eric is modest and prudent - Scottish virtues. He's terribly balanced. For instance, he's incredibly proud of being Scottish, but he sees off this racist nonsense of the Scots being superior to the downtrodden English. He'll give you very cogent reasons why the union is a good thing. You can have a good argument with him without it in any way being heated or emotional. We might have differed about politics at one time. I'm old Labour.

If you divided people into groups of life-drainers and life-enhancers, Eric is very much a life-enhancer. When he walks into the room I'm cheered up. He does lead a very pressured life and if I have a criticism of him, it's that a sense of public duty is all well and fine but there are hours in the day for pottering. I don't think Eric potters enough.

Eric, Poppy, Stanley and I all feel very strongly that when we're old and infirm we'll not impose on our children. If necessary we'll look after one another. When we're 90, frail and doddery, I hope we'll still have good conversations.