'A large young man chucked his fork at me'

The advantage of being high master at St Paul's School in west London, while writing the "Henry Gresham" historical thrillers in your spare time, is that no one tries to kill you. While Martin Stephen was working in remand homes during the Sixties, three of his charges brought him within inches of death. Oddly enough, this did not put him off the job which he started as a 17-year-old during his gap year and continued during vacations. Standards were rather more casual then: he was an untrained ex-public school boy who at school had never even been seen as prefect material.

The first narrow escape came when Stephen was supervising the inmates digging up a field: "A very large young man, brought in for roughing people up, suddenly said, 'I hate effing digging,' and chucked his fork at me from 12 feet. It narrowly missed my head - and my eye. He ran off over the field and was brought back by the police hours later."

There was more trouble in store for Stephen. The unwritten rules of the establishment meant that Rob, the fork-thrower, would now have to escalate the confrontation with Stephen by issuing a challenge to a fight that he would undoubtedly win. An understandably nervous Stephen consulted the deputy head of the home, whose wise response was: "Why don't you tell him that you're scared? I bet that boy has never heard anyone in authority say that to him."

Stephen did just that. "Rob started to cry. He was under pressure to fight me but would have been severely punished for any trouble he caused." Not only did Rob refrain from walloping Stephen but he sorted out another lad who offered him lip. This was just part of the learning experiences gained in remand homes which Stephen credits with enabling him to get where he is now.

Unfortunately, he did not have Rob as an unofficial minder at another institution when a disturbed teenager, upset at being told he couldn't have any more biscuits, jumped at him with a kitchen knife pointed at his throat. Fortunately, Stephen was able to disarm him. He was also able to save the day, and four lives, when another disturbed lad grabbed the wheel of Stephen's speeding car during what was meant to be a fun day out.

Rob did help Stephen out years later. "He is part of the core of my four novels," he says. "The character of Mannion, the servant of Henry Gresham, is based half on him, half on my father's gardener."

Stephen, in turn, is the inspiration for a character in Wicked, the latest novel by his friend, Jilly Cooper: the philandering rogue of a headmaster. "She says it's only the nice bits of the character," he says hastily.

'The Rebel Heart' by Martin Stephen is published by Little, Brown at £ 16.99.