There he would sit at his schoolmaster's desk, a theatrically tattered gown draped about his gaunt shoulders, tossing back a lank mane of hair and holding forth like some actor manager, explaining to his youthful cast the drama of life in which they were about to play a part.
This was John Eyre, an educational impresario who discovered talent, demanded effort and inspired achievement. "As a teacher of history," says Quentin Skinner, now Regius Professor of History at Cambridge,
John was dashing and brilliant; but more important than what he taught was how we should make use of it. I first heard from him the maxim that anyone who cannot write straightforwardly cannot be thinking clearly. "What is the POINT you are trying to make?" he would demand dramatically.
J. L. St G. Eyre - his initials perfectly fitted his flamboyant style - was born in 1921, in Malacca, the son of Ronald Eyre, a plantation manager, and with the help of scholarships was educated at Wellington. The Second World War cut short his undergraduate career at Brasenose College, Oxford, and in 1942 he was commissioned into the Irish Guards. After fighting his way through Europe - he was Mentioned in Dispatches - he was put in charge of producing plays to help maintain military morale. It was then that he met his first wife, the actor Pamela Sholto, who was touring occupied Germany with Ensa. "From the moment we met," she says,
we never stopped talking. He was a show-off, very witty, and his imagination was never bounded by any particular dogma.
Eyre was demobbed in 1946, and the following year joined the history department of Bedford School. He was an unlikely recruit to what was then an extremely conservative, not to say boring, public school, devoted almost entirely to team games. "The red tie he wore was taken as a thin ray of radical hope by boys of a more intellectual persuasion, who found themselves trapped in philistinism and rigidly enforced conformity," says the cultural historian Robert Hewison. "There can have been few teachers of that period who kept a copy of Joyce's Ulysses on the classroom shelves."
It was with infinite relief that boys who were hating their schooldays, unable to breathe in the stifling school atmosphere, found Eyre offering the oxygen necessary for survival. Not that he was soft or sentimental, or believed that everyone should win prizes; on the contrary, he could be coldly critical. That wolf-like grin thrust in your face might indicate that he had hopes for you, but he left it to you to show you could make it.
Eyre loved stoking rebellion, as Michael Brunson, later ITN's political editor, recalls:
We revelled in the stir he caused with his modern dress production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. For the climactic public meeting scene,
the whole of the sombre Great Hall, more used to the strains of Victorian hymns at morning assembly, became a scene of revolution. Scores of schoolboy extras, normally required to maintain a reverential silence below the ancient beams and arches, enthusiastically hurled abuse and shouted down the main characters on stage.
Eager for more drama, a group of Bedford boys, with girls from the High School, set up their own amateur dramatic company - The Optimists - and invited Eyre to be their director. Ian Hay's undemanding Housemaster gave way to Pirandello's Six Characters, and even a dramatised reading of Brecht's The Life of Galileo. The girls, as well as the boys, found their conventional assumptions exposed to quite new ways of thinking.
But Eyre was not content to nurture only the bookish and artistically inclined. He wanted converts. "It's often said that we can all remember a single teacher who changed our lives by giving us a love of something we didn't know we loved," says Lord Ashdown, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats:
John Eyre was that teacher for me. Pretty well single-handedly he converted a rough, tear-away schoolboy interested only in rugby and sport into somebody who discovered the benefits of music, poetry, literature and art which have stayed with me and probably improved me ever since.
Andrew McCulloch, a hero of the First XV, had a similar experience. "I was good at games but often in trouble at school," he says:
John was my housemaster when I was brought in by the police at 1am: aged 16 I was drunk, and behaving obstreperously. Instead of sending me to the Head Master to be expelled, John imposed his own punishment. I had to appear in a play, Chips with Everything by Arnold Wesker. Whilst I pretended to hate the experience, I revelled in it - I couldn't sleep for the excitement. I went on to become a professional actor and writer. John simply changed the course of my life.
In 1968 Eyre left Bedford to teach history in the state sector, at Thames Valley Grammar School in Twickenham (later Richmond upon Thames Tertiary College). There he met Cynthia Rayment: they had been after the same job and she became his deputy. In 1980 they left teaching, married, and for five years acted as joint administrators for the National Trust of Uppark, in Sussex.
John Eyre taught all his pupils more than history: he showed them the possibilities of life. At the end of the war his commanding officer had written of him: "Very clever. Very brave. A fine character. Has done SPLENDIDLY." Not a bad end-of-term report.
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