Peter Vansittart

By Tucker, Nicholas | The Independent (London, England), October 18, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Peter Vansittart


Tucker, Nicholas, The Independent (London, England)


I first came across Peter Vansittart [Obituary, 9 October] when he strode into my classroom in the autumn of 1947 to take an English lesson, writes Nicholas Tucker. Since this was a Hampstead progressive school we were used to strange new teachers, but Peter still seemed stranger than most. Pacing up and down without making eye contact, he spoke for 40 minutes to a class of juniors about the supreme importance of creating works of art. Picking up a child's linocut at the end of his lesson, he sent it skimming across the room with the words, "This is not a work of art."

Aged 11, I quickly fell under his spell. Sometimes lessons consisted mainly of monologues, with anecdotes and astonishing facts about the past alternating with vast, occasionally tottering generalisations often drawn from the Roman occupation, the French Revolution, the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Fascism. Coming across some of these stories years later in the various anthologies Peter put together for publication was like meeting old friends.

Then there were readings from Eliot, Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Rilke, Shaw, Wells and Lawrence. Not much actual English got taught, though there was the odd dictation - sometimes taken, although he never told us this, from one of his otherwise largely unread novels.

But above all, there was our writing. Peter would set a huge variety of imaginative assignments and then read out our best efforts in his thrilling, sonorous tones. Learning the actual mechanics of writing was a different matter; our handwriting remained vile and none of us could spell.

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