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

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

£20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

Recruitment Genius: Stock Broker / Trainee Broker / Closer - OTE £250,000

£30000 - £250000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Stock Broker/ Trainee FX, Stoc...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL)

£30 - 40k + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / ...

Recruitment Genius: ICT Operations Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is the single governing and regul...

Day In a Page

A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935