Those who can… teach

If you saw Dame Helen Mirren’s speech at the BAFTA awards, you’ll know what this is about.


— There will be a short interval to recover from the overwhelming awesome… and we’re back in the room —


The most important teacher I had was a lady called Sonja. I’ve long been forbidden from calling her “Miss Charles”, because she says it makes her feel old – but, like everyone who has been asked by one of their schoolteachers to call them by their first name, I still flinch internally every time I say it. It feels disrespectful, somehow, not to call your teacher by their “teacher name” – as though you’re now claiming to be their equal, their peer. Which you can’t ever be, because how could you? If you were lucky enough to have a teacher like that, you know that to some degree, they shaped you. They helped make you, and it doesn’t matter if you’re twenty or thirty or seventy – that teacher is always going to be your teacher.

Sonja was responsible for introducing me to Milton and Marlowe, and she steered and supported my flailing attempts to tackle Hamlet and Macbeth. She even put up with my turning in essays claiming Romeo & Juliet is actually a comedy (when I made it to university and sat through a lecture suggesting the same thing, I had to sit on my hand to stop myself from punching the air…) and patiently marked no fewer than three essays subtly* expressing my dislike of DH Lawrence’s books.

When I left school, we started to exchange letters every Christmas – and still do. In the intervening years, I’ve continued to learn from her – just as as I’ve learned about her. Now, I know her interests in medieval literature align very closely with my own (although she never let that slip when I was in school) and I know how kindhearted and generous she is. Sixteen years after I last saw her, I know more about her now than I did when I saw her every day… and I suppose that’s how it should be, because then she was a Teacher-with-a-capital-T.

She’s retired now, but I remember her as being unflinching in her support of her students. She was inspiring, she was strong and she was ridiculously well-read: every once in a while, even now, I’ll come across a book and think “Oh, that’s what she meant!” Like all old-school teachers, too, she had a stare that could drop unruly third-years across the yard, and a raised eyebrow which could (and frequently did) reduce strapping great big rugby guys to whimpering wrecks.

To this day, she remains incredibly supportive of me – and I only wish there was more I could do to repay her. If you care to look, you’ll find her in the acknowledgements of BLOOD AND FEATHERS, but it hardly seems like a fair trade-off. Without her, I don’t think I’d be where I am.

Sonja – Miss Charles – was my teacher, and I’m immeasurably grateful to her.

Who was yours?


(*not subtly)



  1. Mr Williams. He was huge and loud and terrifying. He used to lob 500 page history textbooks at people’s heads and threaten to hang them out of the windows if they didn’t listen. He was the best teacher I ever had and I ended up putting him in “The Art of Forgetting” as a tribute 🙂

  2. Mr Porter, my headmaster from infant school, really helped me through my childhood years. It was he who introduced me to books, so-much-so that I was always to be found in the school library, rather than outside or playing games in one of the classrooms. In my last year at his school he made me Librarian, the first one in the school’s history, which came with a red enamelled badge. When I went up to senior school, I would return to his school on the last day of term to help out, as best I could; Sometimes just sitting and helping the other children with their reading, or helping others to write or draw. It was on one of these occasions that he told me to call him David. Of course, I didn’t, and never have, as he will always be Mr Porter.

  3. The teacher that had the most profound effect on my life was my Drama teacher, Mr Turasiewicz, (Mr T to all of us). Although I discovered by my early twenties that a career in acting was not for me, he taught me what dedication, commitment and professionalism is required to produce anything worthwhile of an audience’s attention. If I am brutally honest it’s something that only now, twenty years on, pursuing a career as a writer can I say I have truly learned that lesson.

    Mr T created an environment in which you could pursue creativity with a passion while having the utmost respect for your audience, who are after all, the ones making the effort to read your words or watch your performance. I adored his lessons. I had many teachers that I liked and appreciated. But he was the one teacher that opened my mind to who I can be and lit a spark that’s never gone out.

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