Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Frank Miles, the teacher who changed lives

I was on a school trip to America, staying with a terribly kind couple in a Boston suburb for a week (he was a postman) with a fellow pupil when, one night, our hostess, serving us the biggest steaks I had ever seen, said she hoped they weren’t too rare for us. I heard myself reply, “On the contrary -  I’m sure this will satisfy our atavistic predilections.” Obviously, they looked mystified, and I hastily added, “It’s just the way I like it.”

Now, why would a 17 year old say anything so bizarre, without consciously intending to impress, confuse or irritate? (Apart from being a pompous, insensitive prat, of course). The answer is “Frank Miles”. 

I was looking at clips from the film, Goodbye Mr. Chips for my previous post, when it struck me that I’d only mentioned my old English teacher once during my year of blogging, and then only in passing – and not even by name.  I’ve written about my strange lack of feeling for the academic institutions which did so much for me – but that certainly isn’t my attitude to Frank Miles, who civilsed many young dolts at KCS in the 1960s and 1970s. (I’m not sure exactly when he retired to the country – in fact I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know whether he’s still alive: he must be a ripe old age if he is! )

I was writing something for my old college magazine about what Cambridge had ever done for me a while back, and, wondering how people went about these things, I did some digging online and came up with this from Country Life Editor-at-Large, Clive Aslet: 

“I went to Peterhouse because it was ordained by a charismatic English teacher at King’s College School, Wimbledon. Frank Miles treated us like adults, to the extent of lending one of his pupils his car. He said ‘You must go to Peterhouse because you want to study History of Art.’ …I did English for my first two years. I was completely hopeless. Having had this incredibly inspiring English teacher at school, I found myself cast adrift in the English Faculty without a rudder.” 

I entered Frank Miles’s English class at 13, and he remained my main English teacher until the end of Scholarship term four and a half years later, by which stage I’d managed – quite miraculously - to get a place at Cambridge.

There are few things I’m certain of – I generally avoid “what if” scenarios, given the utterly contingent nature of existence – but I do know that if Frank hadn’t been my teacher, I would never have got into Cambridge. (Or even Oxford, which I would have preferred to attend, as I don’t like light blue.) I suspect many others feel the same way about whichever academic institution they went on to after having their sensibilities expertly rewired by this pedagogical Svengali. 

So how did he manage to get me in? (To this day, I genuinely don’t feel it had much to do with me.) I flatter myself that he must have seen a glimmer of potential in me (not sure how), and, after that, it seems to have been largely a matter of him simply willing me into the damned place. Just before “O” levels, I told him I was intending to do English, History and Art at “A” level. We had a long discussion about my choices. 

Well, no, actually, the whole discussion consisted of the following exchange:

“No, you will not do Art – you will do French.” 

“But I’m not very good at French.”

“You will do French.”

“Why?”

“Because in order to go to Cambridge, you must have a language. You will do French.”

First I’d heard of it!

Part of me still resents having to spend two years doing a subject I loathed, with an amiable if useless teacher whose personal life was spiraling out of control due to alcoholism, rather than Art, which I was keen on. Frank’s tactics almost failed in any case: I only managed an “E” (one very good Peterhouse-bound friend in my set actually failed, and didn’t go to University at all as a result – there but for one or two accents in the right place…). But somehow Frank’s will prevailed, and I was offered a place to do English. (To this day, I remember opening the offer letter – like the fathers in “The Whitsun Weddings”, I had “never known/success so huge and wholly farcical”.)

For the last two and a half years, Kings was more like the Frank Miles Finishing School for Clueless Young Oafs. I learned how to drink in a civilised fashion at gatherings in Frank’s flat (it took a while – I vomited red wine all over my bedroom carpet after the first do). I was taught to maintain academic standards (“Gronmark, that was the worst essay I have ever read by a Sixth Former”). I was taught the importance of personal grooming when a hirsute friend, sporting a weekend’s beard growth was ordered to go home immediately and shave. I learned not to be overly matey with Teach when a class-mate who had written “21 days to D-Day” three weeks before some exam or other at the bottom of an essay was asked, witheringly, “Is this supposed to be funny?” And I almost chewed through my cheek trying not to laugh at double entendres in poems – the very thought of Frank’s likely reaction to smutty sniggers still turns my bowels to liquid.

But, most important of all, I learned three key life lessons. First, that when someone who knows stuff is sharing their knowledge with you, you bloody well shut up and listen. Second, that the opinions formed by immature minds mustn’t be crushed – but, at the same time, mustn’t be accorded a level of respect they don’t deserve. (Frank didn’t really treat us like adults – he treated us like clever boys in need of firm intellectual guidance.) Third, literature – in fact, all forms of art – matter. Enormously.    

My fondest memories of Frank don’t involve the classroom. I remember what an incongruous figure he cut when refereeing Rugby matches (he thought the bullet-headed PE instructor in the film Kes was the funniest thing he’d ever seen). There was the time several of us were treated to a lunch of beer and pork-chops in a pub garden one sunny day on the way to Cambridge in Frank’s Rover for our initial interviews. Him phoning me up to invite me round for a celebratory dinner on the day I heard I’d got in – I was touched by how excited and pleased he was at my (his?) triumph. How he did that silent, breathy laugh when he told us that Christ’s Senior Tutor had written a book entitled Henry James: Literature of the Heart (as far as we could tell, Frank was a fundamentalist Leavisite). And, many years’ later, going round to his flat in Gothic Lodge (which, coincidentally, he’d taken over from my mother when she moved into London) for another dinner after I’d sent him my third novel, which was dedicated to him. 

About three months before I was due to go up, I panicked about my choice of subject. I think I had an inkling of what Clive Aslet – and, I suspect, many others - were to discover: that studying literature without Frank just wouldn’t be the same. (A bizarre interview with my college’s Head of English in a room so bereft of light it was like holding a conversation with a disembodied entity had given me a glimpse of what the future might hold.) I switched to Philosophy.

We speculated madly about Frank’s life, of course (he was not the confiding sort). Why wasn’t he married? Had he been married and divorced? Was he gay? Had he initially been a weak, ineffectual teacher whom a nervous breakdown had turned into a superb one? Now, I’m pleased we never found out – none of our business, in any case. All we really need to know is that our inner lives were immeasurably enriched because we were lucky enough to fall under the stern but benevolent sway of the greatest natural teacher I have ever encountered.

The dedication in my novel read: “For Frank Miles, to whom I owe a great deal”. As I grow older, I become increasingly aware of the scale of that debt - and I still worry whether “to whom” is grammatically correct.

9 comments:

  1. Was this the same insensitive, pompous prat who a few years earlier asked his elderly hosts at Long Beach, California - having scoffed a gigantic welcoming meal : "As I am feeling rather fatigued could you conduct me to my sleeping quarters?" Or am I getting confused?
    Thursday, January 13, 2011 - 07:14 PM

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  2. I am not sure what else to say about FRM other than that you have absolutely captured him. Leaving his students with an enduring appreciation of literature and the arts would have been enough in itself. The ability to construct an argument, to analyse critically - the process of ratiocination- not taking words at face value, substance over form, went far beyond any curriculum and must have shaped the development of hundreds of KCS oiks over the years. I have met only two other people in the 40 years since I left whom I would regard as similarly influential.

    If there is a criticism, it would be the dismissal of some authors whom I have subsequently greatly enjoyed reading, Trollope and Dickens amongst them, and the advocacy of some I think overrated, like Lawrence. But the fact that I am still having this debate with myself while very few of my friends still read for pleasure other than on a beach is due to having had a great teacher. Thanks for prompting these reflections.
    Thursday, January 13, 2011 - 11:47 PM

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  3. On a point of detail, I can recall an unnecessarily cutting comment along the lines of "Sometimes I wonder whether you're worth bothering with" directed at some poor soul as our essays were summarised, which was his way of starting the lesson off with a bit of light sphincter-tightening.

    I can only remember that it wasn't Stoate because he later got the FRM treatment for referring to Conrad's "devastating attributes" in another essay. That was a separate occasion to the one in which Frank pointed out to him that in his essay on Emma, an unfortunate spelling mistake had turned the name of the Squire of Donwell Abbey into an item of female clothing worn at night.

    Why can I remember all that, yet frequently find myself upstairs not knowing what I went there to collect?
    Friday, January 14, 2011 - 12:16 AM

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  4. There was the vocabulary he provided us with, as you say, Scott, "atavistic predilections", and suchlike. That came to my rescue the other day, when I was looking for the right way to describe Whitehall's attitude to their political masters -- "contumely".

    There was the duty to clarify your argument, as you say, Ex-KCS. If you couldn't adduce your evidence and make your case cogently, you were no better than some paltry Oxford don.

    Any fool can think of an argument. A Miletic argument had to be not only cogent and imaginative but also right. There was a right and a wrong. And a right argument was in touch with the great artists in the canon. In the great tradition, to coin a phrase.

    There were wounding criticisms. They were constructive. They were in the tiny minority, a few rocks in the great tide of encouragement. They were parental.

    "The only mystery of the modern church is that they can still get anyone to join", Frank told me once at the end of an English Society meeting. All I can say is, thank God for Frank being in my life.
    Friday, January 14, 2011 - 10:15 AM

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  5. I may have been that prat, SDG, but I feel I can be excused on the grounds that my host (the only man I have ever met who wore his waistband above the nipple) had just tried to argue that, unlike Americans, most Europeans didn't own cars. Besides, if I was the culprit, I'm proud to have uttered a phrase that will undoubtedly not have been employed in the Long Beach area before or since. (My hosts gained their revenge by taking me into Los Angeles on a bus, from which a drug-crazed Afro-Caribbean had to be removed by gun-waving policemen. Most unpleasant!)
    Friday, January 14, 2011 - 02:23 PM

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  6. I remember going from one of Frank's expositions of the code of courtly love, with its reverence for lifelong fidelity, devotion from a distance and self-denial, to a Saturday night party at the house of a Wimbledon Girls High School friend and noting the incongruity. I suspect that if anything put him off women, it was more likely to have been the contrast between the poetic ideal and reality than a Middle Eastern belly dancer.

    Scott, I had forgotten all about Gill, (Tim?) skinny, a nice chap, as I recall, with a floppy fringe, a sharp intelligence and a dry, quirky wit. If Stoate was not the author of the Knighty solecism, he was still a little touchy when reminded of it when I saw him in the 1990s, although he was able to dredge up enough that was embarrassing about me to make up for it.

    And the unshaven one was, as I recall, Peter Sharman, who always struck me as having avoided adolescence by being beamed down from Planet Cool, fully formed.
    Friday, January 14, 2011 - 05:02 PM

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  7. I never actually had Frankie Miles as one of my teachers. Noddie Hudson was mine unfortunately, but luckily only at 'O' Level. But I remember his face really clearly. I think to those not directly under his wing he seemed rather austere. You were either one of his students or not. There was no half way line. From Scott's remarks he sounded great. I wish the same could have been said for other KCS teachers. I know none of mine took even the slightest interest in my overall development, particularly during a crisis period when I really did need help. Must admit I've never even been back to King's for a visit!
    Tuesday, January 18, 2011 - 06:08 AM

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  8. Frankly, I never really took to Frankie Miles. I always found him a bit stuck up and artificially supercilious. But that's what makes the world such a great place, its variety and randomness. A much better experience for me was actually going round to your house, Scott, for those morning break time smokes. For me those small gatherings were my first attempts to break out of my straight-jacketed home life and enter into a freer thinking world. I'm pleased to say I've managed to quit smoking now, by the way! I also remember that adorable dog of yours, Gussie. And your mother. She was a wonderfuI woman. I hope she's still alive.
    Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 06:02 AM

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  9. RAL, I wrote a while back about my strange lack of affection for my college and school: http://web.me.com/scottgronmark/Scott_Gronmark_Associates/Blog/Entries/2010/9/19_Why_do_my_excellent_school_and_college_mean_so_little_to_me.html
    Odd, in my case, because they provided just about everything I could have asked for! Apart from Frank, there’s barely another teacher I can remember anything about – I do remember one of them telling me (can’t remember who), just before I left, that a bunch of them had been arguing about my attitude to the school! I was astonished! I wasn’t aware any of them, apart from Frank, gave a toss what I thought about anything - and I didn't know I had any attitude to the school, except for rather liking it. Jeff Taylor was quite stimulating, but I got tired of him whining in his Midlands tones about us being “privileged” – I remember wondering why, if his conscience was so troubled, he didn’t bugger off to a state school – which I think he eventually did. And I remember Noddy Hudson, who seemed to resent Frank’s favourites (I imagine we were quite an irritating bunch). And the above-mentioned French teacher. The rest are a blur – yet, oddly, I can remember, mostly fondly, every Junior School teacher who taught me. The natural solipsism of teenagers, I suppose.

    Judging by my son’s school, they‘ve got a lot better these days at helping kids who’re going through a bad patch (and I don't mean my son!), and at inculcating a sense of belonging to a community (apologies for the buzz-words!) – I wasn’t aware of a lot of pastoral stuff going on at Kings, and the only “community” I was aware of were my friends, several of whom are still my closest friends to this day. (Mind you, private schools these days also seem a lot quicker to expel wrong-doers.) I do remember my Mum meeting a friend I’d been close to in junior school, whom she was very fond of, as he left Kings for the last time, and he surprised her by saying, “Funny, I’ve been here for ten years, and I really feel nothing at all for the place.”

    BF – Crikey, I’m touched! I also loved those coffee and cig-fuelled morning breaks as well. I seem to remember there was one participant who grew very attached to the round wooden seat on our bog, and would insist on paying a visit every time – much to mother’s bemusement (“Is he all right? Is there something wrong with him?”). How the hell we didn’t get into trouble, I’ll never know – we must have reeked of No. 6 when we got back. Fair set one up for the rest of the morning, though. I gave up smoking ten years’ ago – I still chew Nicorette gum every day and barely an hour goes by when I don’t think about how absolutely great it would be to light up a B&H and finish it in three enormous drags… I now avoid coffee because I get an immediate craving. There’s a picture of the noble beast – i.e. Gussie – in this blog: http://web.me.com/scottgronmark/Scott_Gronmark_Associates/Blog/Entries/2010/12/24_Let’s_talk_about_what_really_matters_at_Christmas_-_the_presents!.html
    To this day, I get all gooey whenever I see a basset hound. My mother, I’m sorry to tell you, died fourteen years ago. Much missed.I always wondered why she didn't complain about all those kids creating a fug downstairs, but she never said I word - in fact, I think she enjoyed it almost as much as we did!
    Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 07:35 PM

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