Charles Spencer

Great inspirations

Charles Spencer on some unforgettable characters

‘I think continually of those who were truly great,’ wrote Stephen Spender, which must have been awkward when he was trying to read a map, cook the lunch, or write that bloody awful poem about pylons. But I, too, have been thinking, if not continually, then at least often, about two great men, both dead, both much missed. They couldn’t have been more different, but they both played a major part in forming my attitudes, my taste and perhaps even my character.

Philip Balkwill was my English teacher at Charterhouse, and I was reminded of him early in January when I went to re-review Alan Bennett’s The History Boys at Wyndham’s Theatre. The leading character, Hector, superbly played by Desmond Barrit, is one of those teachers his pupils never forget, offering lessons in life that go far beyond whatever subject he happens to be teaching; and PGB, as he was known at Charterhouse, was in the same mould.

He was undoubtedly an inspirational English teacher, who introduced me to Shakespeare, Hardy, Hopkins, Yeats, Larkin and many more with superb freshness and insight. Unlike Hector, and indeed several other beaks at Charterhouse in my time, there was never any wandering-hand trouble with Philip, who, despite a manner and a voice that I now realise were more than a little camp, was enthusiastically heterosexual.

No, Philip’s vice was booze, and it was one he would indulge with favourite pupils. When you were invited round to his house of an evening, ostensibly to discuss poetry or A-level options, you knew that you would roll back to your house later that night gloriously pissed.

Philip talked brilliantly when the booze was flowing. About everything and anything, from great railway journeys to Beethoven’s late quartets.

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