Philip Hoare – The Sea Inside

Following is an excerpt from ‘The Tablet’ dated May 5th

The teacher who inspired me 05 May 2016 | by Philip Hoare | Comments: (The Tablet May 5th)

Looking back, you see yourself coming forward, writes Philip Hoare. My school, St Mary’s College, was romantically set on a hill in a Southampton suburb. It was run by the De La Mennais Brothers: their “White House” dated back to the eighteenth century; Jane Austen had visited there. Now a modern extension housed we boys, who liked to believe stories of tunnels that ran all the way to Southampton Water.

I was not a well-behaved pupil. It was the early 1970s, and there were too many distractions, in the shape of Ziggy Stardust and Roxy Music. But just as Bowie was my alternative education, so I owed at least part of my discovery of literature to Mr Newton. Michael Newton – it is a mark of the educational hierarchies that I never knew his full name until five minutes ago when the magic of Google produced a school magazine from 1971 – was a willowy English master who lived alone with his cat. He had a vaguely harassed air about him; understandably, given that those of his charges who would not have preferred to be on the football pitch were dreaming of alien star men with flaming red hair.

But he persevered. I thank God that he did. It was through his determination (albeit a fragile, harried one) that I read Wilfred Owen for the first time. Did he know what he was handing out to us? Of course he did. Owen’s own rebellion spoke to me: we lived in the shadow of the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, and social and industrial unrest. Owen’s voice chimed with a period of protest. In his poetry, I found a legitimisation for my defiance of authority. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” resounded through the wood-panelled classroom for me. As surely as those mythical tunnels coursed under our classroom, out to a sea in which I had yet to swim, so words enabled my escape. They still do.

The fact that we boys were fitfully ruled over by brothers in long, chalk-dusted black habits only exacerbated the sense of us and them. Yet even as badly behaved as we were, for my best friend Peter and I (I cannot now admit to the details of our misdemeanours; they were not quite on the scale of Lindsay Anderson’s film, If…., but it did get a bit Lord of the Flies at times), St Mary’s was a fantastic place to be.

The school was remarkably free. Its physical link to the past encouraged my love of history, as did Mr Jameson, our history master – whom I still see at Mass, and who, amazingly, has not aged at all from the young graduate who arrived to teach us. He was another great educator. He would rub his hands together and run his hand through his thick floppy hair and do his best to beat some facts and even, Heaven forfend, some sense of analysis into our recalcitrant heads.

Would I have behaved any better, had I known then what I know now? No. It was not Mr Newton’s fault that I left St Mary’s with a grade E in English Literature A level. Sadly, Michael Newton died, all too young, soon after I left St Mary’s for the wild and wicked world of London and, bizarrely enough, a career as a writer. I hope he would be amused to see how I made amends.

Philip Hoare’s latest book, The Sea Inside, is published by 4th Estate.

The Tablet May 5th