Just before Christmas, I attended a conference in London. I had a rich, bubbling cold, my train was delayed by an hour, there was driving rain when I emerged from King’s Cross station and I had to spend £17 on a taxi because I was already too late to take the Tube. I entered the conference room cold, germ-ridden and coffee-less (they’d cleared it away); quite ready, in fact, to hate the world.
My mood did not improve when my first break-out session, on ‘The Power of Writing and the Internet’, turned out to be led by a guy from Microsoft. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘Now I’m going to get the full-on, big-corporation sales pitch and then this bloke’s going to tell me how to write!’ However, contrary to my jaundiced expectations, he was, in fact, a very sensitive and funny man who didn’t attempt to sell anything at all. (When will I learn not to pigeon-hole people from big business?) He began the session by saying that, although he wasn’t a writer, he was an avid reader and that he knew that some day he would be a writer, too; he’d been inspired by his English teacher at school. He looked around the group (about twelve of us). “Everyone has been inspired at some time by a teacher, haven’t they?” he asked.
I immediately forgot my miserable mood and brightened inside at the memory of my own English teacher, who happened to be married to my Latin teacher: they were my favourites. Although I attended a grammar school, it was a very provincial one and the standard of teaching was variable, to put it kindly; but Mrs. Hill was a fiercely-burning star. She taught me in the early years, before taking time off to have her children, and returned before I entered the sixth form. By the end of my lower-sixth year, she’d encouraged me to read the whole of Jane Austen and all the tragedies of Shakespeare, in addition to my set texts. She marked my work fairly, but with deadly accuracy and detail, deducting marks even for miscreant commas; it was fruitless to protest that this was ‘literature’, not ‘language’. She would nudge us into taking parts in plays that we least wished to try and I won’t forget her own hilariously-naughty rendering of the porter in Macbeth.
I know that many of her pupils, both the ones before me and those younger than I, loved her as much as I did. I’ve written to her every year since I left school, although I’ve seen her again only once, in the year in which I was married. She now lives in Eastbourne, where I am myself speaking at a conference in April, and I’m hoping to arrange to meet her there. If the Microsoft man is a fellow delegate, I intend to introduce him to her! She was my inspiration, without a doubt, putting a flaming creative lamp firmly in my hand.