Peter Vansittart: Inspirational teacher
I first came across Peter Vansittart when he strode into my classroom in the autumn of 1947 to take an English lesson, writes Nicholas Tucker
Saturday 18 October 2008
I first came across Peter Vansittart [Obituary, 9 October] when he strode into my classroom in the autumn of 1947 to take an English lesson, writes Nicholas Tucker. Since this was a Hampstead progressive school we were used to strange new teachers, but Peter still seemed stranger than most. Pacing up and down without making eye contact, he spoke for 40 minutes to a class of juniors about the supreme importance of creating works of art. Picking up a child's linocut at the end of his lesson, he sent it skimming across the room with the words, "This is not a work of art."
Aged 11, I quickly fell under his spell. Sometimes lessons consisted mainly of monologues, with anecdotes and astonishing facts about the past alternating with vast, occasionally tottering generalisations often drawn from the Roman occupation, the French Revolution, the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Fascism. Coming across some of these stories years later in the various anthologies Peter put together for publication was like meeting old friends.
Then there were readings from Eliot, Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Rilke, Shaw, Wells and Lawrence. Not much actual English got taught, though there was the odd dictation – sometimes taken, although he never told us this, from one of his otherwise largely unread novels.
But above all, there was our writing. Peter would set a huge variety of imaginative assignments and then read out our best efforts in his thrilling, sonorous tones. Learning the actual mechanics of writing was a different matter; our handwriting remained vile and none of us could spell. But who cared, when there was so much else to think about? Freud, Lewis Mumford, Wilhelm Reich, Sir James Frazer, the references never stopped coming five days a week for the next five years of my life. There was also talk about the people he had met at pubs or literary parties that week: Philip Toynbee, David Sylvester, Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas, V.S. Pritchett and so many others.
As a weekly boarder, I also saw something of Peter after hours in his school flat. Generous and affectionate behind his austere manner, he organised games of tennis, umpired cricket matches and took me to foreign films at Hampstead's Everyman cinema, concerts at the Albert Hall and to London's first major exhibition of Picasso after the war. This largesse was shared with other pupils of both sexes, numbers of whom – like me – kept in touch with him until his death.
The reason, incidentally, that his hair retained its colour into old age, pace D.J. Taylor's obituary, is that Peter always wore a straw-coloured hair piece. Possible reasons for this were much discussed outside the classroom, but without any conclusion and never to his face.
Sometimes coming to lessons unwashed and unshaven on bad-mood days, he did not suit everyone. But for me and many others he was a heady inspiration, constantly opening up new doors in lessons and conversation and always making learning seem ultra-exciting.
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