Mark Palmer

Great masters

It only takes one excellent teacher to transform someone’s entire school career, says <em>Mark Palmer</em>

Great masters
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Frankly, I wasn’t a great success at school — although I like to think it was more a case of peaking at prep school, where I was captain of football, a prefect and even managed to pass Common Entrance, thank you very much. And then it all went downhill.

No excuses (plenty actually), but one reason for failing to dazzle at Eton was because my classical tutor cast such a long, dark shadow over me that by the age of 16 all my energies went into disliking him as much as he clearly disliked me.

His name was Fred How and he was a bachelor so set in his creaking ways that even the swots and goodie-goodies struggled to find anything pleasant to say about him.

We dreaded our weekly sessions in his pokey ground-floor flat in the cloisters not far from the Head Man’s plush quarters. It seemed that he went out of his way to say nasty things in his reports (‘Palmer displays jaunty incompetence’ was one of his kinder comments) but thankfully my father — who never had a bad word to say about anyone — did not take it too seriously because How had taught him 30 or so years earlier.

‘Not my favourite beak,’ my father admitted. In other words, he couldn’t stand the fellow.

After three long years, Fred How and I parted company. I still have all my reports. This was his final salvo: ‘I cannot pretend to be sorry that this is my last half as his tutor… I hope that a change will be as good for him as for me.’

And it was. Night and day. A revelation, in fact. I approached a young man called Jeremy Nichols to be my tutor in the senior school and I remember how pleased I was that he agreed to take me on, given my abysmal academic record and, well, jaunty incompetence. I still am grateful — and would venture that it only takes one schoolmaster to make the whole education process worthwhile — and that if you can keep up with that person 40 or so years later then you’re mighty fortunate.

I say ‘young’, and I realise now that Jeremy really was young. He was only 27 when we met in 1970. More important, he was courting his future wife, Annie, at the time, which meant that on several occasions he would leave us a note saying he was in London and that we should listen to Dylan Thomas on his gramophone — for discussion a week later.

We duly did listen to the Welsh rabble-rouser and, appropriately, helped ourselves to Jeremy’s whisky and even got away with a few ciggies because Jeremy used to smoke a pipe (still does), so there was no chance of detection.

Another great bonus was that he took the First XI football (and was not a bad player himself) so that, while I wasn’t brilliant at discussing Chaucer, we could have a meeting of minds over whether to play a sweeper at the back or pack the midfield when playing away to Charterhouse.

He was funny, mischievous, articulate, loved words, a listener as well as a talker, good at tennis. And he treated us as reasonably responsible young men. No wonder, then, that he became a housemaster and later was appointed headmaster of Stowe.

As it happened, many years later, my daughter went to Stowe, but sadly she just missed Jeremy. More fortuitous was discovering that my old school friend James Dallas was living in the same Wiltshire village where we had bought a tiny bolthole — and James had also had Jeremy as his tutor.

‘Let’s invite him up for the weekend,’ said James one evening. And that’s what we did.

Jeremy is 70 now and living in Cornwall. His wife Annie sadly died far too young from cancer, but he has since remarried — to a charming woman called Katherine Lambert, who is editor of the Good Gardens Guide. James asked a couple of other former pupils of Jeremy for dinner on that Saturday night and it was one of those evenings when the past and present merged effortlessly in a bond of trust and good humour. We even touched on Dylan Thomas.

Next day, Jeremy and I attended Matins in the village church, after which he and Katherine came for brunch and I was able to introduce them to my stepsons and their girlfriends.

On leaving, Jeremy gave me a hug. I don’t think Fred How would have done that.