I hadn’t thought of Colonel Hill for years. I’d forgotten how much I owe him. A chance encounter with the phrase “silly arse” brought him back. He taught geography at Emanuel School near Clapham Junction, impatient, irascible and sentimental. Anthony Powell wrote in A Writer’s Notebook about the mystery “that men, who could have made a fortune merely by walking across the stage of a music-hall, should have preferred to eke out a livelihood by teaching little boys”.
Colonel Hill was in that company. “What are you doing down there you silly arse, having kittens?” He threw chalk and occasionally wooden-backed blackboard-rubbers at restless pupils and was a pretty decent shot. And one day in my first year, when I was ten, he set us a homework that terrified me: make a model of a hill showing the contours in colour. The concept was fine but the practicalities were beyond me. I panicked and didn’t do it. There were recriminations and a letter to my parents.
So next time we had written homework I went to town. It was about geological layers, a subject I knew from my fascination with fossils. I supplied the required diagrams of different kinds of geological faults – and I also wrote about geology in general, the discovery of stratification and in particular, the 18th century pioneer William “Strata” Smith.
These four additional pages came back unread, with a diagonal line across each one and the single marginal comment “not asked for”.
One of the vital stages in everyone’s advance towards maturity is the first time you realise that a grownup is not just mad but wrong – totally and cosmically in error. Those four diagonal lines were a rejection of the love of learning: of learning for its own. Well, as I thought even then, sod that.
I have spent the rest of my life learning, often enough stuff far beyond what was asked for. There’s a word for it: ultracrepidarianism: the practice of not sticking to one’s last. I’m currently writing my third book about plants and I’d better get back to it; how wheat works, why roses need human hands and why leylandii are such buggers. School-teachers influence our lives – not always in the way they intended.