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.
- 1 Frank Lampard's face drops when Holly Willoughby introduces him as a 'Man City legend'
- 2 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 3 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 4 General Election 2015: Stephen Hawking says he will vote Labour
- 5 Yazidi sex slaves undergoing surgery to 'restore virginity' after being raped by Isis militants
General Election 2015: Tories sack candidate who said she would never support 'the Jew' Ed Miliband
The four utterly contradictory polls that tell the story of this election and why it is pointless trying to predict the outcome
9/11: Iranian General accuses US of organising September 11 terror attacks
General Election 2015: Prospect of Labour-SNP coalition makes one in four voters less likely to support Ed Miliband, says survey
General Election 2015: Stephen Hawking says he will vote Labour
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera writer mocked after issuing a warning about Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
General election 2015: Labour will toughen hate crimes legislation surrounding Islamophobia
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds
£65K - £75K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Creative Director...
£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful IT reseller bas...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the Country's leading di...
£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...