The power of teachers, good and bad
February 15: UK teacher unions announce further strikes for February and March 2023.
Somebody recently asked me how I started writing and it set me thinking. There had been important early moments: in 1975 my English teacher told me off for writing too much - "Stop writing these long stories," he wrote at the foot of a fifteen-pager inspired by Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "You are no good at it."
I gave up writing epics and instead, tried my hand at making his life hell. I was much better at this, discovering a particular vulnerability during classroom sessions devoted to reading Shakespeare out loud. I always slipped into a Kenneth Williams voice at the crucial moment. It drove him utterly insane. He had taught in a grammar school when he was younger and now this experience confirmed all his worst fears about the comprehensive system. My education was enriched: I learned to dodge chalk.
(If you don't know who Kenneth was, listen to Great Lives on BBC Sounds or try You Tube.)
All through my student days and twenties I kept writing and even had a few things published, but it all seemed a bit forced. I couldn't quite get it right. In 1989 I went to work in Kuala Lumpur as an English teacher. One day, plucking up courage, I telephoned the New Straits Times newspaper office and made an appointment to see the features editor, Philip Mathews. When I walked in, he looked up and said, "Are you a photojournalist?"
I gulped and said yes. During the ensuing conversation, I realised that he had mistaken me for someone else, but kept quiet. A week later I was doing a 2,000 word feature about Taman Negara national park. That had seemed like the beginning, but I still didn't feel satisfied with the words. Somehow it wasn't me.
A year later, in Bali on my 30th birthday, I found me.
After dark in Anturan I hear the sound of a gamelan orchestra starting up. I set off, wandering along the beach towards the music and eventually see light coming from a temple where a big festival is in progress. The men have set up a primitive roulette wheel made from a length of formica and are gambling hard, throwing a home-made ball of rubber, winners screeching with delight while losers search their pockets for more cash. Youths without money flirt with the glamorous girls who sell peanuts in wraps of newspaper. The place is a riot of colour and life. I've never been anywhere where everyone seems so wonderfully happy.
Wandering into the temple, I find the gamelan orchestra playing full tilt. Two dozen individuals, all wrapped up inside their own mystery, all tapping and banging and tinging, apparently without any reference to anyone else, producing this gigantic pandemonium that suddenly becomes something magical, like a forest floor covered in random leaf litter that begins to move, then reveals itself as a huge well-camouflaged snake that dances.
Beyond them is an inner sacred temple where banks of offerings are being set out. A youth takes my arm, "Come, you can go in." I let myself be led inside, feeling very conspicuous and then, standing in front of the deity, it hits me. Or rather they hit me. Flowers. Hundreds of them. The worshippers are throwing them at the deity and I am in the firing line. I turn around: a wall of laughing faces, all pelting me with gorgeous scarlet, yellow and orange blooms, raining down on me, peppering my face, catching in my hair and clothes, building a small flower drift at my feet. I have turned thirty this day. What will happen to me? I am a teacher who does not like teaching. I want change, but I also have a young family and change seems impossible. If only I could disappear under a mountain of flowers and emerge as a new person. Balinese preferably.
Over the next two days we drive down the cracked yellow coast, Mount Agung is always on the right. There is no tourism here and nowhere to stay until we reach Tulamben, a small patch of greenery and a few bungalows on a beach of black rocks. Fishing canoes are drawn up, their outriggers made of single twenty-foot lengths of giant bamboo. The bungalow owner lends me a diving mask, snorkel and fins. "Go 300 metres north up the beach, then swim out 30 metres," he tells me, "You will like what you see."
I follow his instructions. The rocky sea bed becomes sand then falls away steeply into darkness. Thousands of fish swarm all around. I keep swimming out and a shadow appears, a crusty piece of twisted metal rising from a hulk on the sea floor. A little further out and I can see a deck and more superstructure: some portholes and a door. Fish drift in and out holes. And what fish. Crimson, yellow, blue, striped, striated, dappled, dazzling - Gerald Manley Hopkins would explode.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
I had not totally switched off in English. I can still recall some of the poetry.
I dive down, finning hard, get a glimpse into the dark interior of the ship and swim through a hole into some upper part. Big grouper fish, a lion fish. Out through another twisted rusting doorway, careful not to cut myself. Far below me a flash of white from the tip of a shark's dorsal fin. I turn up and see the light far away, knowing I've gone too deep. I turn and it seems to take forever because I'm keeping well clear of that lion fish. The pressure inside me is growing. I've got seconds left before I take an involuntary gasp. I kick hard for the surface and the tiny damselfish spit away from me like the sparks from a welding torch. Letting tiny sobs of air escape until I am empty, I swim upwards. Then burst out, gasping.
Back on shore I discover there is a diving centre: a little white hut manned by Pitu who says he can take me out. He asks, "Are you qualified?"
How difficult can it be? "Yes."
I spend the dive attempting to get the hang of the buoyancy jacket. Every time Pitu turns I give a jolly OK signal, then empty my mask, plummet five metres, rise again, limbs flailing.
But the dive is incredible. Somewhere deep inside the wreck, Pitu pulls out a bunch of bananas. Huge groupers come zooming in and grab them. They love bananas. They must wait for years by the beach, hoping a bunch will fall in.
That evening we go off to find somewhere to eat. There is one small bar-restaurant and at the next table are three middle-aged men: Kal, Rudie and Richard. They are divers and tropical fish experts. Rudie even has a fish named after him.
"So I was trying to corner a bargibanti majoris and Roger was waving at me and then I saw it - Holy Cow - an anorthropithecus..."
"Pithecus or blastopug?"
"Pith. Striated too. Not like in Guam."
[none of these creatures exist, but it's what I wrote in my notebook. I assume I was just grabbing at their style of conversation]
We start chatting. Rudie and Richard are writing fish guidebooks, Kal writes for National Geographic. He spent years studying remote tribes in the New Hebrides. He talks about the difficulties of chartering helicopters in Papua New Guinea. I try not to be awestruck, but I am. I tell them about my experience on the wreck.
When I finish, there's a silence. Rudy grins. "Well, you ruined everything, didn't you?"
"You did your first dive on the best site in the world. What's next?"
Kal fixes me with a look. "Why don't you write that?"
"Naa. I'm sure it's been done before."
"I mean write it - like you just told us. Write it like that. Go on. Do it. Tonight."
Teachers are all around, all your life. Some should be ignored, others not.
That night I sit up late and scribble down everything I can remember.
A few weeks later I send the story to a magazine publisher in Hong Kong and they send me a cheque for $1200. I write a few more. They are not quite as good, but I keep going and slowly work out that if I can make the experience sing at the time I am doing them, the story will get written. The magazine send me an air ticket to visit Hong Kong. I give up classroom teaching forever.
To this day I am grateful to Kal Muller for that small, but vital, push. And, in a strange way, I am also grateful to that grumpy English teacher.