'I tried not to be chummy'

"You've only ever had one job!" chortles the writer Hunter Davies. And he's not referring to Georgy Girl, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, The Memory Box, and the rest of his wife Margaret Forster's highly acclaimed novels, published since 1964. Nor does he have in mind her prizewinning biographies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier. No, he laughingly dismisses her four decades of wordsmithery in favour of her 18-month day job as a supply teacher.

"I graduated in June and was writing a novel until September," Forster recalls. "I sent it to an agent, who said, 'Very promising - come in for a chat'."

She took that as a "No" and threw the novel in the bin. "The only thing people did in my position was to teach. It was shocking: they let graduates teach without any training. I was a supply teacher in Paddington."

Forster's classes were always on current affairs, so, on the bus to work, she would devour the handy double-page news round-up in the Daily Herald (forerunner to The Sun). She was soon offered a term, then a further year, of supply teaching at Barnsbury Secondary School for Girls. It was an easy bus ride from her home in Hampstead, and she was now, more aptly, to teach English.

The school was for girls who had failed the 11-plus, and "the teaching part was very tough, absolutely draining", yet she enjoyed it. Forster was a good teacher, though she says it herself. "It's all about discipline. I didn't make the mistake of being chummy. You can relax once you've got them in your hand."

As a pupil herself, she had seen many a shy young teacher chewed up. Also, she knew what 11 to 16-year-old girls respect in a teacher: dress sense. She was a 22-year-old who liked clothes, so that box was ticked. In addition, Forster selected for study a book with some relevance to their lives (as opposed to the suggested Lorna Doone). "I had a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, and managed to buy some second-hand copies." Against the advice of the head of department, she put half of the class in for O-level English and most passed.

Meanwhile, in the evenings, Forster was working on a new novel. Although Dame's Delight is, she says, "deservedly out of print", its publication enabled her to bunk off from teaching for ever. And even her husband was impressed.

'Keeping the World Away' will be published by Chatto & Windus in March