Sir
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He looked like Frankie Howerd, the long blank face, the bushy eyebrows, as he walked into the formroom (never classroom) and introduced himself. He wrote the name on the board, Alan Hurst. Then he wrote his age, 42. He must have been wearing a gown, because all the masters did. (That was the word in my school, never teacher. One of the French masters used to say, in a much-imitated west-country drawl, ‘Jesus was a teacherr. Buddha was a teacherr. I am a schoolmahsterr.’) And he would certainly have been Sir to us, and called us by our surnames, because we were only the Junior Sixth and more informal terms of address wouldn’t come in for another year.

In other respects, though, it felt as though the usual barriers had been breached. He didn’t seem to have prepared anything; he just talked, telling us about his previous life as a Roman Catholic priest, and the time he had spent teaching in New York and at a London girls’ school he referred to as ‘Dame Alice Owen’s… joint’. He would interrupt himself and comment on his own teaching as he was doing it. He played with his glasses, stared at the ceiling, and spoke slowly, with long pauses, unexpected emphases and sudden speedings-up. ‘I think… it’s time… I… toldajoke,’ he said, doing his best to live up to his appearance (which he was well aware of). He managed to get a four-letter word into the joke, too, which was probably part of the point. He kept asking our opinion on things: ‘Don’t… you… think…?’ He read us an explicit passage of Günter Grass, asking if we thought it was suitable for his fourteen-year-old third-formers. He asked us what we’d say about ourselves in a Lonely Hearts ad, and whether we should all go round to the offices of the Evening Standard and kick the editor in the teeth for some offence I have forgotten.

What he cared about most was poetry, and almost every lesson (period) began with him distributing copies of a poem for discussion. Keats, Hardy and Auden, whose death he announced to us one morning, were his favourites. I still remember snippets of poetry in his voice: ‘Life… friends… is… boring. We… mustnotsayso.’ He had heard John Berryman read at a festival: he had really shaken the place up, coming on stage drunk, botching his delivery and saying, ‘Fuck it, I’ll start again’. Rosemary Tonks, who must have disappeared about this time, was another poet he introduced us to: ‘I … shallliveoffyour… loaf of shadows… London; I admit it… at the… last.’ Or, to return to Auden, ‘Once… having… shat in his… new apartment… he… begantofeel… at home.’ He drew our attention to what he called the unselfconscious use of the word shat; it was the first time I had ever heard the past tense.

At the end of the year he invited us all to a party, another first. He lived in Hampstead with his American girlfriend, Joanne, and I must have been early because I remember wandering round the sunny streets beforehand and buying a book from a display outside a shop. This was where Keats had lived. At the party we listened alternately to Dark Side of the Moon and Tubular Bells and explained aspects of British life to Joanne, who was the only woman present.

Some time later I wrote a poem about him, or about me as I would be if I became him, forty-two, living in Hampstead, buying poetry books in the open air. And a year or so after we had left, a couple of friends and I, on a whim, phoned to ask him out for a drink. In the pub, he kept asking us if we knew one or another of his present sixth formers, and we would reply, yes, but he’s only a kid, not even fully formed yet. And I realised what it must be like being a teacher, suspended in one place, treading water while the students wash past you, their age always the same though the faces are different, wave after wave.


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